With the ‘Brexit’ campaign gearing up and divides being drawn over the forthcoming UK referendum on whether Britain should remain within the European Union, many can already see parallel’s with Scotland’s independence referendum campaign in 2014.
The Drum spoke to two colleagues at Home Agency who during the Scottish referendum, like many within the Conservative party are now, were opponents; it’s managing director Giles Moffatt who worked on the Better Together’s marketing and Ian Dommett, now business director at Home who led the marketing for the Yes vote.
During the conversation the pair discussed what they expected to see from the advertising from either side of the already heated debate that has begun over Britain’s future role in Europe.
The Drum: So, as veterans of the biggest referendum in recent history, what do think it will take to win?
GM: For me, the biggest thing is a single-minded message, rooted in an insight about the most important segments of the population. We do that for brands day in day out, and observing recent successful political campaigns, they should be no different. The Conservatives won in 2015 because they continually rammed home a message about ‘chaos or continuity’. The Lib Dems got in in 2010 by offering a simple proposition: ‘to keep those in power in check’. A third of people still don’t vote in General Elections, and politicians and their advisers need to avoid introspection – the reality is that the vast majority aren’t thinking about politics for most of the time. Keep it simple and true.
ID: Yep, the temptation in politics is to throw the kitchen sink at it. That’s fatal. You’ve got to identify the key indicator audience that has to be convinced, and make sure they get the message loud and clear. You have to win the big arguments early, be aware that negative myths will often beat positive truths, spend your time with undecided or ‘soft negative’ audiences and never believe that you might be winning: keep working hard and keep talking to people: word of mouth is hugely important. And it helps to have a supportive media.
The Drum: If there was one thing you think your side could have done differently, and from which the current adversaries could learn from, what would it be?
ID: The Yes side called the referendum but it did not have its campaign ready, particularly at a political level, before it launched. So it was creating itself as it went along. This meant that it had to keep responding to events and issues created by the other side. If you want change, you have to plan for it. And effective persuasion takes practice.
GM: Ironically, our experience was similar. Although we won, the No campaign also lacked cohesion. Our opponents branded it ‘Project Fear’ in a reference to scare-mongering tactics. Actually, the real fear, was fear of failure. Salmond had nothing to lose, whereas the break of up the Union would have been hugely damaging on all sides. Plan ahead and stick to the plan. As those much overused war postcards say, keep calm and carry on.
The Drum: The polls right now are pretty close. They said both the Scottish Referendum and 2015 General Election were ‘too close to call’ but they got it horribly wrong. Why do you think that happened?
GM: The answer to that is quite simple. In Scotland, there was a stigma surrounding No voters. You were seen to be undemocratic, unpatriotic, and unwelcome in a lot of communities, so people kept quiet until the end. In 2015 the polls most likely didn’t reach non-voters. These non-voters felt strongly enough about the precarious state of the UK to come out and vote for the first time. History could repeat itself with this EU referendum: the media will undoubtedly stigmatise ordinary Brits who think we should leave, so they will keep quiet until the last moment.
ID: Sampling is always an issue; also margins of error can lead to a wider final gap than earlier predictions suggest. I also feel that there was a section of the population who felt inclined to vote Yes and then when faced with the importance of what they were about to do, eased back from actually doing it – they didn’t feel that it was the right thing to do at that time. That’s pretty common in all big decisions. The other illusion to watch out for is what is going on in social media. We were winning that particular war by a country mile with the YES campaign, and many heralded this as a sign that we would win. Social networks are about groups of like-minded people, not a representative sample of the population. Use them well, but don’t believe the hype.
The Drum: if you had one bit of advice for any of the lobbying organisations in the EU Referendum, what would it be?
GM: Don’t succumb to groupthink. Mixing business people with politicians can rapidly turn into a mutual admiration competition, when you really need to be looking outside and acting on what is genuinely going on out there. Use the best insight you can get, and not necessarily the most powerful or highest-paid opinion. Create a campaign narrative and stick to it. And learn the lessons from people who have done it before.
ID: For the political parties involved the clearest lesson is to think about where you will be, and where you might want to be, after the result. Life will go on whatever the outcome. But voters will remember and judge you forever on how you behaved, whom you campaigned alongside and how you treated the voters. Make sure everything you do has a political and social logic that is clearly understandable and credible, both within the referendum and beyond.