Why Vote Leave won. From the man who ran the campaign.
- Why did "Leave" win the referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union on the 23rd June 2016?
- What does it take to run a successful national referendum campaign?
- How do you attract 17.4 million votes, more people than have voted for anything, ever?
- Could Remain have won instead? If so, how?
I've certainly got my own views (full disclosure: I was the only unpaid volunteer on the Vote Leave campaign in my small village) but I won't go into them here - because I've seen surprisingly little attention paid to the views of the people who actually ran the 'Vote Leave' campaign itself.
What do they think? To find out, it's worth turning to Vote Leave and its former CEO, Matthew Elliott.
Matthew Elliott, former Vote Leave CEO
- Vote Leave was formed as a non-party political campaign in Oct 2015, and designated as the official 'Leave' campaign on 13 April 2016, only 9 weeks before the vote itself. It beat other campaigns such as Leave.EU and Grassroots Out, who were based around the UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farage
- Unless you're a political junkie I suspect you've never heard of Matthew Elliott, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Vote Leave - unlike other figures from the referendum campaign like David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nick Clegg or Nigel Farage
- Prior to running Vote Leave, Matthew was the founder and chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, Big Brother Watch and Business for Britain, and also a seasoned referendum campaigner - he was 'No to AV' Campaign Director on the 'Alternative Vote' referendum
- This gives him the unusual distinction of having won all of the UK-wide referendums in the last 42 years (2 of 2). He also has close allies & mentors from people who ran Business for Sterling and the successful campaign against the UK joining the European single currency (in that case, this was so successful it pre-emptively stopped a UK Euro referendum from even being held)
On Dec 5 2016, Mr Elliott gave a fascinating keynote speech to the UK in a Changing Europe thinktank, where he lays out 12 reasons he thinks that Leave won. While the full video is on Youtube, there is no transcript or accompanying article available anywhere.
Below I give a full transcript of Matthew Elliott's remarks, annotated with my suggested links and images to the points he mentions, along with a summary of all 12 reasons.
I hope this is useful whether you are a remain or leave voter, or neither!
(My thanks to Matthew Elliott for his kind permission to reproduce the speech and his assistance with this article)
The 12 reasons* Vote Leave Won
*There are actually 13 in the speech, with the 13th being a very brief side discussion about "What Brexit means". I've left this out of the transcript as it deals with the post referendum situation
The government was defeated in Parliament and forced to allow a 4 week pre-vote period of "Purdah". This ensured the government could not unduly influence the vote by making any announcements or using the machinery of state in this period, putting Leave and Remain on a more equal footing. "Without Purdah, Leave probably wouldn't have won the Referendum"
2. Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn was elected the new Labour leader in a landslide, only 9 months before the vote. He refused to campaign alongside David Cameron or fully co-operate with the "Stronger In" Remain campaign, and the disorganisation of the "Labour In" campaign also enabled Labour Leavers to project a much stronger image than their numbers in Parliament actually deserved. "The election of a veteran Eurosceptic backbencher as Labour leader turned out to be a massively good day for Vote Leave"
Vote Leave had a consistent message right from the start of the campaign, in fact for several years prior to it. This contrasted with the Stronger In campaign. Vote Leave's three core messages of 'Our Money, Our Priorities', 'Leave is the safer option' and 'Take back control' focused the narrative onto the UK's EU membership fees, overcame typical status quo bias, and made restoring sovereignty the "central slogan" (exit polls showed sovereignty was the no.1 motivating factor for Leave voters). "StrongerIn never really came up with an accessible slogan to describe their campaign"
4. Business for Britain & the CBI protest
Vote Leave recognised in advance that the economy would be the "weak flank" of their campaign, and had a defensive strategy to demonstrate that business appeared "divided" on the issue of Brexit, particularly by focusing on the CBI's "bias" towards the EU. This laid the groundwork for the later use of Leave backing business leaders such as Sir James Dyson, ultimately nearly neutralising Remain's advantage on the economy. "The economy was always going to be the Remain campaign's strong suit, and business leaders were always going to be their strongest messengers. So we needed to demonstrate on the Leave side that business was "divided" on this issue"
5. No Deal
David Cameron's failure to get any significant deal in his UK/EU "renegotiation" with the EU fundamentally undermined his own position with voters. Leave had a consistent and logical position on the renegotiation: 'Change, or go'. "I actually think this probably was the biggest factor in our victory in the referendum"
Boris Johnson declaring for Leave was a crucial moment - it gave the campaign "heavyweight" credibility with his charisma and ability to reach out to the ordinary public as well as voters, alongside the fact he was trusted by twice as many voters as David Cameron. Boris also worked well with other Leave figures and presented a unified team to voters. "What it meant was that Vote Leave had the right messengers, delivering the right message to win the referendum"
Vote Leave won the designation as the official "leave" campaign with the Electoral Commission, and didn't co-operate with the competing UKIP groups or join forces with them. This allowed a professional-looking Vote Leave operation to build a broad based coalition with voters from all parties and backgrounds, many of which didn't want to feel they were voting UKIP by voting Leave. "It was essential that Vote Leave was a non-UKIP based campaign"
U.S. President Barack Obama's intervention into the campaign backfired, boosting support for Leave, and marked a turning point for many voters against "experts" and "the establishment". This played into the anti-establishment theme of Leave and undermined the message of Project Fear. Leave successfully showed that many "experts" had been "Wrong then" on the UK joining the Euro, and "Wrong now" on Brexit. "Voters turned against the rather patronising attempt to bully and browbeat them into voting Remain"
Voters consistently ranked migration as their no. 1 political issue. It was obvious migration would be Remain's weak flank, yet they had no answers and could not ally voters fears. A Leave message of "Taking Back Control of Our Borders" really resonated with voters. Previous failed promises on migration from Remain campaigners also undermined them with the public. "This was not only a question of migration, but also a question of being lied to by politicians"
10. Newspaper endorsements
Vote Leave secured endorsements for Brexit from many of the largest circulation newspapers. This was a dramatic contrast from the previous referendum in 1975 when every major newspaper backed remaining in the EEC/EU. And even those backing Remain were undermined by decades of negative language about the EU. As one Ambassador said: "You can't drip poison into a well and then expect voters to drink from it"
11. Project Fear
Project Fear's "hysterical" warnings lost credibility when Chancellor George Osbourne's "punishment budget" was quickly left in tatters. The need for a Project Fear at all by Remain was down to a misreading of the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 by Remain figures involved in both campaigns. As a result, Leave was by far the most positive and optimistic of the two campaigns. "The misinterpretation of Scotland led to a crucial strategic mistake when it came to the EU Referendum"
12. Get Out The Vote (GOTV)
Vote Leave won by 52% to 48%, and outperformed the opinion polls by 9%. This was due to having more motivated and enthusiastic supporters, a better organised Get Out The Vote operation and higher engagement on social media despite less favourable demographics. Sophisticated targeting of voters in a turnout model built specifically for Leave also maximised turnout on the day of the vote. "Leave voters were more likely to turn out than Remain voters, and they were much more enthusiastic about voting Leave"
Annotations, links and commentary provided by me. Otherwise, produced verbatim from the speech
What I want to do is pick out 12 days in the year running up the EU Referendum which I think were crucial to our victory. 12 'key wins' for the leave side. Now the key point that I want to make is that all of these wins, all of these days in isolation couldn't have been done without a lot of long term planning, building up to that event. So the thing I want to really stress is that Vote Leave's success, and the Leave campaign's success, wasn't just grounded in a well run campaign in the six months running up the referendum, but also in terms of days, years, indeed, decades of activity leading up to that.
1. "Purdah" (7 Sep 2015)
So what's the first of the '12 days of Brexit'? The first one I've picked out the 7 Sep 2015, and that was the day when the government was defeated on 'Purdah'. And this was a really important win for Vote Leave. It was before we were launched, but it was a win by 'Conservatives for Britain' which we'd set up shortly after the [May 2015] general election. Now as most of you probably know, Purdah usually applies for about 4 weeks before any General Election or Referendum campaign. And it basically prevents the machinery of government being used for political campaigning. This covers everything from promotional material, to leaflets and websites, right through to official government reports. And the government had tried to amend the European Union Referendum bill at the third reading to actually relax the usual restrictions on this sort of campaigning by the government. And this would have given the government - had they succeeded - free reign right up until referendum day to carry on using the full machinery of state to actually promote the Remain cause. And without Purdah, it would have been massively difficult for Vote Leave to have 'cut through' in those final crucial four weeks of the campaign. Those final four weeks where Vote Leave started getting the momentum.
Now, thanks to several well organised Tory backbenchers, including Steve Baker (CON, Wycombe), Bernard Jenkin (CON, Harwich and North Essex) and Bill Cash (CON, Stone), they were able to organise a rebellion which made sure that Purdah was reinstated into the Referendum Bill. This was really the first big victory for Conservatives for Britain, and it was absolutely vital for a fair and balanced campaign and it ended up meaning that Purdah came in 28 days out before the referendum.
Before Purdah kicked in, Vote Leave was at a massive disadvantage. We really felt it as a campaign. Not just things like the £9.3 million spent on a government leaflet sent to every household, and the online activity and online ads from the government, but also in terms of the reports put out by government departments. Particularly the Treasury. The ones warning of a 'severe economic shock' if Britain voted Leave, the ones talking about a 'self inflicted recession' and of course the one promoting the notorious '£4,300 cost of Brexit 'per household' figure. All of these made it very difficult for Vote Leave to actually cut through. Because whenever we did anything good in promotional terms, the government would step in with a new report to actually cut off the headlines we were due to get that evening.
And I think it is fair to say, that without Purdah, Vote Leave probably wouldn't have won the referendum. I think the long term win for us in this, the reason why we won, was all of the activity by conservative MPs over many, many years, they were well organised, motivated and able to organise backbench MPs to rebel on key points like that.
2. Jeremy Corbyn (12 Sep 2015)
The second day I've picked up, is the election of Jeremy Corbyn [as Labour Party Leader] [laughter] on the 12 Sep 2015. And the election of a veteran Eurosceptic backbencher as Labour leader turned out to be a massively good day for Vote Leave. Now, not only had he voted to 'Leave' the EEC in 1975, he'd voted against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 (criticising it as 'taking power away from national parliaments and handing it over to a set of unelected bankers'), he'd voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, he'd described the EU's treatment of Greece as 'brutal' during [his] leadership campaign, and he refused to even commit to voting for Remain in the Referendum.
That said, I don't accept the post-referendum analysis by people around the StrongerIn campaign, that their defeat was entirely the fault of Jeremy Corbyn. I think after Labour's defeat in Scotland in the 2015 General Election [where they were almost wiped out by the Scottish National Party], following the Scottish [Independence] Referendum, why should Corbyn have put up with being the Tory patsy in this campaign? Why should he put himself in that position? The Conservative Party were responsible for holding the Referendum, so why on Earth should Jeremy Corbyn come in and save the day for them? So I think what he did - in playing a slightly more low key role - was entirely logical, and in his political interests.
That said, the disorganisation of the Labour In campaign, enabled the Labour Leavers to project a stronger image than their numbers in Parliament actually deserved. I think it was quite telling that 45% of Labour voters were unaware that Labour was backing Remain. And also that Gisela Stuart (LAB, Birmingham Edgbaston), Vote Leaves Chair, and Kate Hoey (LAB, Vauxhall), another prominent Labour Eurosceptic were some of the most visible Labour politicians throughout the course of the campaign. I think all of this helped towards 35% of Labour voters backing Leave. But again, there is a long term reason for this success. It's worth noting that Labour [financial] backers like Labour businessman John Mills who ran for many decades a group called the "Labour Euro-safeguards Campaign". He kept that flame of Euroscepticism going through some quite difficult times for Labour Eurosceptics.
3. Messaging (9 Aug 2015)
So the third day I've picked, is the launch of Vote Leave, or to give it its full title, the Vote Leave, Take Control campaign. Now Vote Leave was launched with three core messages:
Our Money, Our Priorities - which led to the infamous £350m [a week] figure, and the idea that we should use that money to fund the NHS
Leave is the Safer Option - this was essential to us overcoming some of the natural status quo bias in any referendum where the change campaign is often at a disadvantage
Take Back Control - Our central slogan in the campaign - take control of our borders, lawmaking, the money we send to the EU, the economy, trade. It was quite significant that we included this in our title, Vote Leave Take Control. We were criticised for that at the time but I think it proved to be a good decision
But again, this wasn't something dreamed up just before the referendum. This was built on decades of hard work. Most notably by Dominic Cummings, who was responsible for all of our strategy as Campaign Director. He had done work for me at Business for Britain back in 2014 after the European elections to work out some of our strategy and messaging for the referendum. But really his thinking on this goes back to the days when he was Campaign Director of Business for Sterling, back in the late 90's/early 2000's. Also there were two referendum's worth of thought going into this as well. Dominic's work on the North East Says No campaign against The North East Regional assembly, this was an early incubator of the idea of looking at money in referendum's, with the slogan, "Politicians Talk, We Pay" ['No' ultimately turned polling slightly in favour of a NE Assembly into 78% to 22% for No]. And of course the work I did as head of the No to AV campaign 5 years ago, where again we used money as a central theme of the campaign ['No' also won, with 67% of the vote], talking about the £250m cost of changing Britains voting system.
So, this campaign was many years in the making. The iconic red "battle bus", was only launched in March 2016 but that messaging went right back to our very first leaflets put out at our launch [in Oct 2015]. And I think it's worth contrasting the consistency of Vote Leave's messaging with Stronger In's messaging. Yes, they banged the drum on "Project Fear" time and time again, but they never really came up with an accessible slogan to describe their campaign.
4. Business for Britain & the CBI Protest (9 Nov 2015)
The fourth day I've picked out is the 9th Nov, which was the day of the Conferderation of British Industry (CBI) Protest. Now, the economy was always going to be the Remain campaign's strong suit, and business leaders were always going to be their strongest messengers. So we needed to demonstrate on the Leave side that business was "divided" on this issue. And again, the origins of this go back over ten years, to the Business for Sterling campaign I mentioned before, where Rodney Leach and Dominic Cummings demonstrated that business was divided over Britain's membership of the Euro.
And I set up Business for Britain right after David Cameron's Bloomberg speech in Jan 2013, to demonstrate - yet again - that business was divided on the EU. And we built up a list of 1,500 business leaders, all formed into a regional network, with regional chairmen who were capable of speaking in the media, and speaking at events. And we did this because local business leaders are much more highly trusted than national business leaders, so when we were running events and debates during the course of the referendum campaign, and we used one of our local business chiefs, the chairman of the regional Business for Britain campaign to be a spokesperson for us, they were a very effective, highly trusted advocate for our cause.
And the reason we did this [CBI] stunt, is that we needed to demonstrate that the CBI isn't - as they claim to be - the "voice of business". And we did this in several ways. First of all we exposed the polling - the figure they always trotted out that "80% of businesses supported remaining in the EU" - we exposed the fact that was based on - quote, "dodgy" polling. That's not my word, it's not Vote Leave's word its the word of the British Polling Council when they examined how that poll was done by YouGov for the CBI. I can see John Curtice [polling expert in the audience] shaking his head, that was the word that Nick Moon used in an email back to us, that it was dodgy. So again, we were chipping away at the credibility of that poll.
And we also needed to expose why [the CBI] were saying what they were about the EU. The CBI has received ~£1m of EU funding since 2009, accounting for 20% of their income, so they were paid advocates for the cause, in our view. And it's notable, after exposing their polling, after the demonstration, they largely withdrew from the referendum debate. This meant that we were using our advocates at a regional level, also unveiling our some senior business leaders like [JCB digger owner] Lord Bamford, [Inventor and entrepreneur] James Dyson, and Tim Martin [Wetherspoons food and drink chain] to actually make the Leave case, really ramming home by the end of the campaign that business was divided on this issue. But again, it's worth noting that this success didn't happen overnight, Lynton Crosby has a phrase, "You can't fatten a big on market day". And the success of this operation goes right back to the creation of Business for Britain in 2013.
5. No Deal (20 Feb 2016)
The next date is the 20 Feb 2016, and this the date when Cameron returning with nothing from Brussels - nothing substantial to his deal. And I actually think this was the biggest factor in our victory in the referendum. When you have a situation the following day, when newspapers are running headlines 'Is that it?', and making the comparison with Neville Chamberlain, you know it hasn't been a successful renegotiation. And even The Guardian, the Financial Times and the BBC suggested the deal didn't amount to very much.
Now in returning with nothing, David Cameron fundamentally undermined his own position. David Cameron suggested that we should leave the EU if we failed to get fundamental reform, and prior to getting the deal, David Cameron repeatedly said he "ruled nothing out", implying that he could vote for Leave, and also saying time and time again, "of course Britain can survive outside the EU".
So when he came back with no deal [and no Treaty change], and when he then committed himself to remain, and when he then campaigned so fervently for Remain, making all of these dire warnings about what would happen if we Leave, there was a huge inconsistency in what he said during the campaign compared to what he said prior to the deal - and I think that went down extremely badly with voters.
In contrast, I think on the Leave side of things, I think we got the messaging much better. If you remember Business for Britain had the position of 'Change, or go'. So we actually spent a lot of time talking about the different changes we'd like to see to EU membership, but also making the case if we don't get those changes, we'd be happy for the UK to leave the EU. We even went so far as to publish a 1,000 page magnum opus called 'Change, or go' on the sort of changes we needed and how Britain could survive outside the EU, so we were committed to this course of action.
So when it was clear that the PM was going to come back with nothing, and we changed our position to 'Go', there was a consistency, a logical step in what we did, moving from what we did, sort of mild Euroscepticism to saying we should leave. And that was a similar journey to what a lot of voters experienced. When after the Bloomberg speech, they were pretty much perhaps on the fence, more inclined to wanting to vote Leave, but worried about the economy, but coming down at the end of the day, having seen the lack of a deal, on the Leave side.
6. Boris (21 Feb 2016)
So, the sixth date. and this was the second consequence of there being no deal, was Boris [Johnson, Mayor of London], declaring for Leave which was a very crucial moment. And of course, not just Boris, but also all the others ministers and MPs who declared for leave. I think there were 6 cabinet ministers at the end of the day who declared for Leave, as well as 140 MP's, which is much more than the figures which the government were expecting, [they thought] 30-40 at most would declare for Leave.
And the reason this was important, was that it gave heavyweight credibility to the campaign. It meant when we were talking about things like how you could spend the money on the NHS, or how you could cut fuel tax, this wasn't just some maverick backbencher saying it, it was people who were senior members of the government, indeed people who could be seen to be future members of the Conservative party. But the crucial one out of all of those of course, is Boris. I think Boris added to the campaign, the charisma, the ability to reach out to voters who weren't engaged in conventional politics and weren't naturally attracted to the Conservative Party.
And the combination of Boris working with Gisela Stuart, our Labour chairman I think worked particularly well during the campaign. And its interesting, if you look at the polling, Boris was trusted to tell the truth by twice as many voters as Cameron (45% to 21%) and the Leave campaign was more trusted in general, by 39% to 24% (they are COMRES figures).
So what it meant was that Vote Leave had the right messengers, delivering the right message to win the referendum. And they worked well together as a team, something you saw particularly during the TV debates which you had a very united and strong Vote Leave campaign team on the debates, compared to a very divided Remain campaign where you had bickering between Angela Eagle and Nicola Sturgeon during the course of [a] debate, which didn't come across particularly well on TV.
But again I think its worth pointing out that the key ministers that came out for Leave weren't "jonny comelateleys" to this debate. Boris of course, had been writing his influential Daily Telegraph [newspaper] column over many decades, which had a huge impact I think. Gisela [Stuart] became a Eurosceptic following her experience with the European convention that led to the European Constitution and Lisbon Treaty, and of course Michael Gove was the first person back in 2014 [sic: 2013] - the first senior cabinet minister - to say he would vote Leave were there not to be serious reform.
But all this amounted to the fact, that the campaign was not like the campaign back in 1975, characterised as being an Enoch Powell, Michael Foot campaign, dominated by extremists. But of course, we should remember that it could well have been like that - this is why the "designation" was so important.
7. Designation (13 April 2016)
The 13th April was the day when Vote Leave got the [official] "designation" [by the UK Electoral Commission] rather than Grassroots Out, Leave.EU or a UKIP based campaign. Now, thinking back to 1975, there is a famous cartoon that sums up the Leave campaign in '75. It has a rabble of people marching together under a banner, 'Get Britain Out', and it includes people with flags saying 'Trotskyites', 'National Front', all headed up by Enoch Powell, Michael Foot, Tony Benn. And the slogan underneath is 'Join the Professionals'
So as a campaign, we needed to look more professional and have people of higher standing than back in 1975. And we wouldn't have achieved that had we been one united campaign. I think that UKIP probably has a ceiling of about 30% support in the electorate, that's roughly I think what it got in the 2014 European elections.
And one crucial fact about the swing voters in this referendum, was that they didn't want to feel they were voting UKIP, by voting Leave. That's why it was essential that Vote Leave was a non-UKIP based campaign. And this strategy went right back to Business for Britain where we didn't have any UKIP people associated with the campaign, we always kept as a non-UKIP - in fact, non-party political based campaign.
As a consequence of having the separate Vote Leave campaign, and not being one amalgamated campaign (and people were saying time and time again we should join up and become one campaign), we were able to build a much broader-based coalition then we otherwise would have been able to. I'm thinking of some of the many groups we set up during the referendum - Out and Proud, Students for Britain, Liberal Leave, Green Leaves, and the many 'For Britain' groups inspired by Business for Britain: Women for Britain, Muslims for Britain, Lawyers for Britain, Veterans for Britain, even Vapers for Britain. And had we had just one campaign, a lot of these disparate groups wouldn't have joined in, but they felt comfortable being part of a non UKIP-based, more mainstream campaign. And I think our decision not to join up with UKIP has been vindicated by the final result.
8. Experts (22 April 2016)
The next day, the 22 April 2016, this was the day of Obamas ill-judged intervention in the debate. Now, when David Cameron didn't get the bounce he expected when he came back [from Brussels] with his deal - he was expected to get a bounce of between 10-15 points, but of course he didn't get that bounce. He was hoping to get a bounce when Obama entered the fray. But it didn't happen, in the end it turned out to be a win not for the Remain side, but a win for the Leave side. And Obama on his trip of course, said the fateful words that Britain would be sent to the "back of the queue" for a trade deal with the US were we to vote for Leave.
And I think that marked a key point when voters turned against the rather patronising attempt to bully and browbeat them into voting Remain. Think of the "Davos club", people like Christine Legarde, think of the celebrities, Keira Knightly, Bob Geldof. Think of the "experts" in general, the IMF, the OECD, the CBI, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, all of these people wading into the debate.
Now this played right into one of Vote Leave's key campaign theme: Wrong Then, Wrong Now, with that very strong anti-establishment message. One thing we said time and time again, was that the very people who were saying it would be terrible if we left the EU, were the very same people who said it'd be terrible if we didn't join the Euro. And we said they were Wrong Then, Wrong Now. They were wrong about Britain's membership of the Euro, they're now wrong about the case [for] Leave. And I think it's worth pointing out of course that a lot of "Project Fear" hasn't come to pass, and we've been proved right on that.
But back to Obama. I think it is quite telling that the week [after his visit to the UK] showed an uptick in support for Leave so I think actually the intervention of global leaders like Obama, and "experts" generally moved things in our favour as it played into the anti-establishment nature of our campaign.
9. Migration (12 May 2016)
So the 12th of May was the day when the Office of National Statistics (ONS) published the number of national insurance numbers given out to EU migrants. And I they published the fact I think it was 2.25 million national insurance numbers were given out over the previous 5 years, despite there only being 1 million migrants in the official migration figures. And this was a key point in the campaign, with lots of media coverage.
Now for the Remain campaign should always have known that migration would be their weak flank, just like the economy was always going to be weak flank for the Leave campaign. But despite this, they had no answers on the subject of migration, with Cameron sticking with his soundbite that he wanted to reduce net migration to the "tens of thousands", despite net migration being roughly 300,000 a year.
And the message of Vote Leave of "Taking Back Control of Our Borders" I think really resonated with the public, who were frankly sick and tied of the uncontrolled migration from the EU. And this factor really goes back to 2004, the year you had the expansion of the EU to include some of the East European member states [e.g. Poland], and its from that point when Tony Blair predicted that only a few thousand people would come to the UK that people felt a great resentment of the very high levels of migration from other EU member states [in 2016 net migration from Romania and Bulgaria alone - 70,000 per year - was more than what used to be typical migration from every other country worldwide combined in previous decades]. And this was not only a question of migration, but also a question of being lied to by politicians. So this of course was a key part in the referendum.
The key challenge I put out to those on the Remain side is - why didn't they anticipate this? We anticipated that the economy would be our weak flank, we prepared for that. I didn't see any real effort by people on the Remain side to anticipate that their weak flank on the referendum would be migration, and to do anything to mitigate people's fears in this area.
10. Newspaper endorsements (14 June 2016)
- The Mail on Sunday (1,361,228)
- The Mirror (770,714)
- The Times (449,151)
- Financial Times (199,359)
- The Guardian (171,723)
- The Sun (1,755,331)
- Daily Mail (1,548,349)
- The Sunday Times (806,375)
- The Telegraph (496,286)
- The Express (421,057)
And this was a dramatic change from 1975, when just The Morning Star and the Spectator [magazine] backed the Leave campaign.
But I think it would be a mistake to have some sort of narrative that the Leave victory was down to the "Tory press" or down to the newspaper proprietors who owned the key Tory newspapers. I think that successive governments, not just David Cameron but also Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, John Major, all need to shoulder a certain amount of blame for this. Let me just explain my reasoning. I was speaking to [an EU] Ambassador about Leave's victory and he gave me an explanation as follows:
And over many years, the sorts of language used by Prime Ministers when addressing the EU wasn't the sort of language of how the EU was a good thing for the UK, or a positive thing, it was language about how they were going to "go into battle", how they were going to "block" new measures, how they were winning crucial "victories" over the EU. This is a very adversarial form of language when addressing the EU. So you can't expect your narrative one day to be very adversarial and then expect people to vote to Remain in the EU the next day. All successful comms strategies aren't just executed over a matter of months, they're executed over a matter of years.
11. Project Fear (15 June 2016)
This was the day of [Chancellor] George Osborne's "punishment budget", which was frankly left in tatters. And this was really the peak of "Project Fear". It was about a week out from the referendum. And this is when he threatened to hike taxes, and slash benefits if the UK voted Leave.
Now we got wind of the announcement about 24 hours beforehand, so it gave us 24 hours to gather a list of 60 Conservative MPs [significantly higher than the Conservative majority in Parliament which would cause government paralysis] who signed a letter saying they'd vote against this punishment budget, which we released just as George Osborne was going on the "Today" programme to announce it. And this was perhaps the peak of the campaign.
And this was also a long running campaign by the Treasury, which people dubbed "Project Fear". And I think Project Fear was actually undermined by the hysterical nature some of the warnings, which frankly flew in the face of voters more common sense on these issues. Voters found the key Vote Leave messages about £350m much more credible than the Treasury messages about how leaving the EU would cost each household £4,300. And they also found the Leave campaign to be much more positive than the Remain campaign was, and I don't think Project Fear helped in this situation.
And I think, basically, the strategy of the Remain campaign went back to the Scottish [Independence] Referendum, when Andrew Cooper, who was the strategist the Remain campaign was also the strategist for the Pro-Unionist, the "Better Together" campaign in Scotland. And of course they'd had a Project Fear in the Scottish Referendum, and interpreted that as a great success because they won that Referendum, but actually, as a campaigner in some ways you'd say that Alex Salmond won the Scottish Referendum - in the sense that he went up from 25% support to 45% support on the day, so the momentum was with him. So I think the misinterpretation of Scotland led to a crucial strategic mistake when it came to the EU Referendum.
12. Get Out The Vote (23rd June 2016)
So, the 23rd of June, "Independence Day". Despite going into referendum day roughly 5% behind in the polls, Leave managed to win by 4%.
Now we were always confident we were going to outperform the polling expectations, for a number of reasons. The first one was that Leave voters were more likely to turn out than Remain voters, and they were much more enthusiastic about voting Leave. And in our turnout models, rather than asking people of their likelihood to vote, we asked them how enthusiastic they were about the referendum. So we always thought our guys were more likely to turn out.
I also think we had a more organised ground campaign. Of the 650 constituencies, 641 had volunteer coordinators. We delivered over 50 million leaflets, including "dawn raids" [at 6am] on polling day. That was quite apart from the leaflets put out by Grassroots Out, Leave.EU and UKIP, so many more leaflets were delivered on our side. And this was really building on a grassroots movement that in some ways went right back to the Referendum Party in the mid-1990's.
I thought it was quite telling that in Lambeth, one of the [London] boroughs that voted most heavily for Remain [78% Remain], where I actually live in Brixton, every Saturday I would go out campaigning with some of the local organisers there, and we always had at least a dozen people, going right back to September of last year, campaigning every weekend in Brixton, in Streatham, in Lambeth [78% Remain] more generally for Leave. And I never really saw much more activity than that on the Remain side of things. So the fact that Leave was actually matching the Remain side in a part of the country which was very heavily Remain, I can bet your bottom dollar that the Remain side weren't campaigning as heavily as the Leave side in Clacton [69% Leave; represented by the sole UKIP MP in Parliament] or in other parts of the country that voted Leave.
I think we also had a more successful social media campaign on the Leave side. Both what we did at Vote Leave, and more generally on the Leave side, much higher engagement rates with our material online, much more sharing going on, much more retweeting going on, which is surprising in a sense given the social demographic of people who use social media. So that would actually suggest we were winning on the social media front. And of course all of this fed into us having a better GOTV operation on the day, which is crucial to any campaign. And Vote Leave had built I think a quite successful [turnout] model in identifying right down to street level which were likely to be our more rich areas to target, and this became crucial on the day as we were able to direct activists to the best parts of the country.
You'll all be familiar with the phrase, "Victory has a hundred fathers, while defeat is an orphan". I think this is certainly the case in the EU referendum.
Each of the dates I've picked was a key win for the Leave campaign but I hope I've been able to demonstrate that each of those days was actually grounded in campaigning over many years, if not decades of activity. And I think much of the analysis of the referendum put out immediately after has really just focused on the short term, short referendum campaign itself, if you like. And I think any serious analysis, perhaps by any budding PhD students in the room needs to actually really look at all of these long term factors that led to Britain leaving the EU on the 23 June.
Thank you very much.
Matthew Elliott, former CEO of Vote Leave, Dec 5, 2016