Campaign Lessons from Britain’s EU Vote

What candidates & causes can learn from Brexit

A week and a half before the celebration of America’s Independence Day, the voters of Great Britain declared their independence from the European Union. No one should be surprised by the outcome.  The Leave campaign told a winning story, the Remain campaign did not, and you can learn much from this.

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First, this article isn’t about whether Brexit is right or wrong, or about the practicality of this change in policy.  This article, like this site, is about winning campaigns.  Specifically there are three questions I want to look at here:

1) How did Leave campaign win?

2)  Why did Remain campaign lose?

3)  What lessons can candidates apply from Leave’s success and Remain’s mistakes

It All Starts with a Story

Winning campaigns usually win not because they have the most money or a huge list of endorsements, but because they have a winning story that resonates with the voters.  They know the Six Pillars of a Winning Campaign Story and stick to them religiously.

In a winning campaign story, the candidate or campaign casts the voters in the role of the hero (Pillar 1).  And in every great story the hero has a problem that’s causing them some sort of pain or frustration (Pillar 2).  A guide or a mentor  then comes into the hero’s life (Pillar 3).  The guide has a plan to solve the hero’s problem, relieve their pain, or give them peace instead of anxiety (Pillar4).

However, the plan can’t be implemented and the problem resolved, unless the hero takes action (Pillar 5).  That action is to vote a certain way or for a certain candidate.  Therefore there must be clear stakes at hand to ensure the hero takes action (Pillar 6).  The hero must know what good will come from their action and what potential ill will befall them if if they do not.

That’s the framework for every movie and novel you’ve ever loved.  It’a also the framework for winning campaigns, especially those of underdogs who unexpectedly upset the political apple cart, as just happened in Britain.

Let’s look at how the Leave campaign told their winning story to British voters, and how the Remain side failed to do so.

1. The Voters

Leave’s campaign was all about the voters.  They never lost sight of this.  The leaders of Leave didn’t cast themselves as the heroes of the Brexit story.  They understood it was the British people they served.

Remain didn’t do this at all.  Not only did they fail to cast the British voters as the heroes of their campaign narrative, their campaign actually turned the voters into the villain. Remain talked down to voters inclined to vote to leave the European Union, literally belittling them as “Little Englanders.”

2. The Problem

Leave effectively recognized the problem (actually problems) that were agitating and concerning a majority of voters.  There were three main issues that a majority of voters felt was the source of their pain and anxiety:

  1. Economic uncertainty in a barely growing global economy transitioning from the Industrial Age to the Information Age.
  2. Immigration viewed as harming some Britons livelihood while bringing increased threats of terrorism and the loss of the British identity with it.
  3. An unelected centralized government in Brussels unaccountable to the  British people for the regulations and diktats it imposed on them.

Remain failed to identify any problem that was occupying the voters minds.  This is a classic case of those in power thinking they knew better than the people they represent.

3. The Guide

In a campaign for an elected office, the guide is the candidate.  In a referendum such as Brexit, the guide is the person who is the face of the campaign.

Leave’s guide was former London Mayor Boris Johnson, who managed to serve as the guide for Leave’s campaign after an initial power struggle with Nigel Farage, head of the UK Independence Party.  Having one guide was an important development for Leave.  It’s one the Remain campaign would have been wise to copy.

Remain had two guides. The first and the most prominent was Prime Minister David Cameron, who ironically placed the Brexit Referendum on the ballot in the first place to allow the people to have a say on Britain’s continued EU membership.

The secondary guide was the leader of opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn.  Corbyn was to play a supporting role to Cameron’s guide, mostly there to show unified support of Britain remaining in the EU from the minority Labour Party.  As you’ll see, he failed at this role in spectacular fashion.

4.  The Plan

Leave’s plan to solve the problem was simple:  Get Great Britain out of the European Union so the country could chart it’s own course without interference from Brussels.

Since Remain didn’t understand the pain and frustration being felt by the voters, no plan was ever concocted to ease that pain and make voters lives better – even though there were significant examples of their pain being caused by the government in London rather than the one in Brussels.

This failure may indeed have been caused by the fact that Prime Minister Cameron served as the guide for the Remain campaign who couldn’t effectively criticize any shortcomings of his own administration.  Doing so would undermine his own political position.

5.  The Call to Action

This pillar, each campaign got right.  Leave called on voters to vote to take Britain out of the EU.  Remain asked voters to keep their country in it.

However, since Leave had a plan and Remain didn’t, Leave’s call to action made sense.  Remain’s absolutely rang hollow.

6. The Stakes

Leave made the stakes of the referendum very clear.  If Britons voted to Leave the EU, the problems the people were facing would be fixed.  If they didn’t vote to leave the EU (or failed to vote at all), the problems Britain faced would not only remain, they’d get worse.

Remain made it’s entire campaign about the stakes.  The campaign said there was economic stability and greater national security by being part of the EU.  Leaving the EU would be devastating.  The economy would go into a tailspin and Britain would be endangered by taking a back seat in international affairs.

However, Jeremy Corbyn, as the secondary guide, helped to undermine the stakes Remain presented to the public.

Corby was not as full-throated in his opposition to Brexit as Cameron, nor make a joint appearance with the Prime Minister in the last days of the campaign.  This would have been a major signal of solidarity across ideological lines.  For whatever reasons Corbyn had, it didn’t happen

Throughout the campaign, Corbyn’s opposition was tepid at best. This certainly didn’t help make the stakes seem real to Labour’s voters and subsequently resulted from a vote of no confidence from the members of his own party.

The Outcome

51.9% of British voters voted in favor of their country to leave the European Union.  48.1% voted to keep Britain in the EU.

That’s a close vote and one that Remain easily could have won, if they had a story – but they didn’t.

Remain had the money. They had the endorsements of the leaders of both major political parties and many respected leaders.

But the Remain campaign didn’t understand the pain and frustration of the British people.  They didn’t understand the problems that concerned the voters.  Even worse, they turned their own constituents into the villains of the story. The Remain campaign was probably doomed from that moment.

Remain didn’t have a plan for voters to take action on to ease their pain.  Instead, Remain focused on how horrific life would become in Britain if the people voted to leave the EU.  So significant was Remain’s frantic forecasts of catastrophe, that Remain’s campaign became known as “Project Fear.”

Maybe Remain’s predictions are true.  Maybe they’re not.  Maybe they fall somewhere in between.  That doesn’t matter.  What matters when it comes to winning a campaign is the story that you tell.

If telling a story called “Project Fear” with your own voters cast in the role of the villains isn’t a bad campaign story, then I don’t know what is.

Assisted by the Remain campaign’s inability to connect with a majority of voters, Leave overcome many obstacles and unified behind a single guide, Boris Johnson.

The Leave campaign told a clear story that cast the voters as the heroes of Britain who could solve the problems they were facing simply by voting to take their nation out of the European Union.

On Election Day, that’s exactly what the voters of Great Britain did, proving once again the power of a clear, concise story when it comes to winning any election.