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EU Referendum Brexit Media

How the EU referendum was lost for the Remain campaign

By Paul Connew, Media Expert

June 24, 2016 | 10 min read

Ok, 23 June was always going to be a momentous day. But it surpassed all the advance billing and went off the Richter scale in terms of political earthquakes. With the resignation of prime minister David Cameron the icing on the hardcore Brexiters' cake and emerging signs that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn could soon face a leadership challenge.

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On a day of crowing and crying across politics, the public and the press, it wasn’t 'the Sun wot won it' (although it wasn't slow to crow), but disillusioned Labour voters in many heartland areas.

Labour voters, often from an older generation, who chose to vote with Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage and reject their own party leadership for a potpourri of reasons.

Yes, fear of immigration was one substantial factor, but so were depressed wage levels and job prospects in parts of the north and Midlands, together with a sense of alienation and visceral hostility to the ‘establishment’ and the political ‘elite’. Factors that undoubtedly figured heavily in the historic result in which 51 per cent (17,410,742) of voters backed Leave over the 48.1 per cent (16,141,241) who voted Remain. But, with Scotland, Northern Ireland and London strongly backing Remain and dramatic regional differences in voting patterns, the pressure for an early general election will inevitably grow in the weeks ahead, rather than a straightforward Tory Number 10 succession for Boris Johnson and his cohorts.

Not to be underestimated, either, was an (understandable) temptation to give David Cameron and George ‘Austerity’ Osborne a bloody nose. Without, perhaps, fully factoring in the prospect of the UK being run by a decidedly more right wing Tory government headed by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – hardly the most natural, non-elitist flag-bearers of the hard-pressed working class.

One lifelong Labour-supporting, ex-trade union official Geordie friend of mine may well not be alone when he told me in the cold light of dawn: "I voted Leave because I wanted to make a protest about the way the Tory government is running the country, not because I’m anti the EU. I never thought Brexit would win, but I thought if Cameron and co got a big scare they’d ease up on austerity and crack down on things like zero contracts and also win more concessions from Europe on things like freedom of movement.

"But the idea of Boris Johnson as prime minister terrifies me. The only thing worse would be bloody Nigel Farage."

He also admitted to being "shocked" by the scale of the collapse in the £ and the stock market sparked by Brexit’s victory. "When the Brexit campaign kept telling us that was just Operation Fear and Cameron and Osborne were totally exaggerating, I’m afraid I bought into it and a lot of other traditional Labour voter mates did, too. Now I’m starting to think we’ve made the wrong call after all."

The contrasting mood of crowing and crying was brought home to me again by younger family members, some old enough to have voted and some who would have loved to if they weren’t a year or two too young.

All of them, male and female, feel passionately European and are in shock at the idea that we’ve chosen to take ourselves out of the EU, with one saying bitterly: "The referendum was all about Britain’s future and that’s above all about the future of the younger generations, but from what I can see it it those in their 50, 60s and 70s who have decided our destiny." (Polls suggest that 72 per cent of 18-24 year olds backed Remain, but only 34 per cent of pensioners. It raises the question that if David Cameron had granted 16-year-olds the vote yesterday, as per the Scottish referendum, the outcome might have been different).

As readers of this column will know, I’m a strong (non-Corbynista) Labour supporter of Remain. But one who last week acknowledged that he’d no longer wager his best shirt on a Remain victory and risk no more than a pair of oldish socks with a small hole in the toe.

Even when the polls began to suggest (erroneously again) a 'resurgence' in Remain’s ratings, I remained sceptical. Fleetingly I thought that the horrific assassination of pro-Remain MP Jo Cox by a gunman with neo-Nazi links, and the outpouring of outrage it stirred, might just tilt the balance in Remain’s favour.

But the continuous feedback I kept getting from older friends and contacts –especially in the Midlands and the north – kept the alarm bells of doubt ringing in my ears. These were decent folk, often lifelong Labour voters, who were horrified by Jo Cox’s murder, but also convinced that voting Brexit represented the best way of protesting over a whole range of issues, including the low interest rates that have devalued their savings.

It was patently clear to me – and should have been to Labour’s high command –that while the vast majority of Brexiters, across the political divide, are not racists and xenophobes, all racists and xenophobes would be marking the 'Leave' box. Similarly, fears of immigration in many low-pay, working class, poor prospect Labour communities are very real and not based on overt hostility to EU migrants but on concerns about GP waiting times and housing shortages. Fears that blind them to the fact that those problems are primarily down to Tory government austerity and not dictated by the EU and all too easily tempt them to hum along with Ukip's siren song.

On the subject of Jo Cox, it was nauseating to witness a gurning, crowing Nigel Farage, basking in victory, making the crass comment that it had been achieved "without a single bullet being fired". It sparked a memorable and shaming front page in the (pro-Remain) online Independent.

Across the UK media landscape, newspapers scrambled to get out special 5am late editions while rapidly updating their websites as the history-changing story developed. The front pages reflected both the momentous nature of the result and the paper’s own pre-vote clarion calls for Brexit or Bremain.

The pro-Remain Mirror carried a scuffed union-jack painted human face with the headline: ‘WE’RE OUT’… Britain votes to quit EU and the pound goes into freefall’.

The equally partisan pro-Brexit Sun’s 6am special edition featured a pretty female Brexiter being carried shoulder high under the classic Sun pun headline: ‘SEE EU LATER!’, with an 8-page inside special labelled ‘NATION’S BIG BREXIT’.

The vociferously pro-Brexit Daily Mail produced a 5am referendum special with the splash headline: ‘WE’RE OUT!’, together with a picture of a jubilant arm-waving Nigel Farage, and the message: 'After 43 years UK freed from shackles of EU…..PM in crisis as voters reject PROJECT FEAR’. (Quite how sister title, the Mail on Sunday, which backed Remain, plays it at the weekend will be fascinating.)

The Times, which alone among the Murdoch UK stable backed Remain, featured a more sober front page (again featuring a picture of a beaming, cheering Farage) but with the simple headline ‘Brexit for Britain’ and a prescient sub-head, ‘Cameron and Corbyn face calls to quit’.

The Scottish Daily Record, perhaps anticipating Cameron’s swift departure, featured an unflattering front-page close-up photo of Boris Johnson, ‘waiting in the wings’, with the headline: ‘Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid…we’re on our way OUT’.

Also in Scotland, the Herald produced a striking front page featuring a tattered and torn Union Flag with he words: ‘UK Votes Leave’ and….’Scotland’s future in the UK back on the agenda.'

The consistently pro-Remain Financial Times takes the line: ’Brexit: The world’s most complex divorce begins.’

The UKIP-supporting Daily Express, however, was strangely subdued with a simple, rather pedestrian front page, headlined: ‘Historic Day for Britain’. No kidding, Mr Desmond?

The pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph produced a special late edition Page one headlined: 'Britain backs Brexit’, running across a picture of Leave voters in traditional Labour stronghold Sunderland celebrating. Sunderland, of course, was the city whose overwhelming vote for Brexit produced the first hard evidence of how Britain’s future would be changed forever.

The media reaction, of course, ran far beyond Britain itself, with most titles registering shock and hostility toward the result.

The august New York Times, perhaps, captured the mood perfectly with its banner front page headline: 'British Stun the World'.

It reflected, too, the reaction of Anton Boerner, influential head of Germany’s Foreign Trade Association, who opined: "A catastrophic result for Britain and also for Europe and Germany. It is disturbing the oldest democracy in the world turns its back on us."

Another irony is that, after Cameron's dignified if arguably inevitable resignation, Boris and Gove are likely to need to call in a top team of economists and other business experts to help the UK's tricky divorce from the EU. And with George Osborne highly unlikely to remain as chancellor, they will almost certainly be forced to turn to advisers who supported the Remain cause in the absence of frontline figures who supported Brexit. Quite how that will appeal to those they derided, or even compared to 'Nazis', will be another intriguing aspect of the Tory government's all-important effort to avoid resembling Humpty Dumpty if things start to fall apart and bitter division and deepening fiscal crisis replaces initial euphoria.

As the full impact and shockwaves of the momentous political earthquake reverberated through the day, you sensed both the crowing and the crying is far from over. Not least among a Labour party, and its supporters, torn between shellshock, accusations of lacklustre leadership on the campaign trail and a growing civil war over why and how it so critically misjudged the mood music emanating from its traditional heartlands.

Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, former editor of the Sunday Mirror, deputy editor of the Daily Mirror. He is a lifelong Labour supporter who voted Remain, but warned in his Drum columns that Labour voters could prove the key to a Brexit victory

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