It had seemed that we were getting to grips with the reasons behind the Brexit vote. Once we'd got over the cries of pain and anguish from disappointed Remain supporters, a narrative began to emerge. This narrative took us beyond the simplistic line of 'it was immigration that won it for Leave' to some more sophisticated assessments of voting patterns and behaviours. Added to this were appraisals - from outside and inside the two campaigns - of the marketing strategies and tactics used to promote Leave or Remain.
Broadly the reasons underlying the Leave vote began to crystalise - a lack of trust in authority, a conviction that Leave offered control and using a referendum vote to kick out at a system that served too many people poorly. Plus, of course (and this is still the most significant factor in Brexit), people wanted the UK to leave the European Union.
Alongside these reasons sits the failures of the Remain campaign - from tactical incompetence through to a strategy founded on the assumption that voters would trust 'experts', from whatever field, who advised to vote Remain. All this plus a torrent of scare stories that didn't work because the target voters simply didn't trust the messengers.
It seems, however, that we're not quite out of the woods and the discredited narrative of dumb leave voters not listening to 'experts' remains. We need to stress again that this narrative - like the narrative of old vs young - doesn't fit the facts regardless of how much people want it to. All it does it fit perceptions of those leave voters and act as wish-fulfilment for some (fortunately a declining few) looking back at the referendum.
Here is a particularly bad example of this wish-fulfilment from economist, John Van Reenan:
There are many other notable features of the Brexit vote – including the fact that Remain had a voting majority for those under 50 years of age and also in London, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is shocking that a constitutional rupture can be made based on 37 per cent of the eligible voters. We take decades debating and prevaricating on major infrastructure projects like Heathrow and Hinkley Point, yet are prepared to gamble with something even more important for our futures on a simple one-off in-out referendum.
The referendum was won on a drumbeat of anti-foreigner sentiment. It’s the same tune being played by demagogues in every corner of the globe. It’s the same tune that was played in the 1930s. It’s the same old beat that rises in volume when people are afraid. In the UK, it’s echoed by a rabidly right-wing press and unchallenged by a flaccid establishment media. Mixed by a band of unscrupulous liars and political zealots, it has become a tsunami of bile that has downed and drowned a once great nation. The only question is which other countries will now be swept along in this poisonous flood.
This screech of pain - rejecting democratic choice, conflating constitution with infrastructure investment and invoking Godwin's Law - builds on the only substantive point in Van Reenan's article, the role of the media. Like so many, Van Reenan falls for the simple belief that, in some way, it was the media that won it for Leave.
The problem is that there's little solid evidence to support the 'it was The Sun wot won it' line - that the media (keen to maintain perceptions of power) is central to the outcomes of political campaigning. Too few understand how the media influences our behaviour just as too few are able to appreciate how advertising doesn't increase aggregate demand. And we have seen a shift in media consumption with newspaper readership declining sharply and people relying on broadcast and online sources. Yet the sinister influence of newspapers is still stressed:
Most of the British press has been unrelentingly Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant for decades. This built to a crescendo during the Brexit campaign with the most popular dailies like the Sun, Mail and Express little more than the propaganda arm of the Leave campaign.
Now this is simply a statement - Van Reenan doesn't present any evidence to support his contention and I'm guessing wasn't a regular reader of the three publications he accuses of bias (worth noting here that the Mail on Sunday supported Remain which doesn't fit his narrative well). Instead, Van Reenan attacks the BBC for doing its job - set out very clearly in the law - of providing balanced reportage during election campaigns. Even worse, we're told that the BBC - and I guess other broadcasters governed by balance and impartiality regulations - should abandon this because of an opinion poll, not a very good one, of economists.
Amidst all this, we should recall that during the referendum campaign, Leave advocates criticised the BBC (and other broadcasters like Sky News) for favouring arguments to Remain. You really can't win this one and the broadcasters will be quite happy to get flak from both sides in the referendum.
This isn't to say that media is unimportant - the public consistently tell pollsters that they trust broadcast media so what they say (or don't say) matters. But structured communications are only a part of any political campaign, the other part of campaigns - sometimes called, with that love of military metaphor so common to politics, the ground war - is just as important to the outcome. And it works like this:
So it was that Bird and his colleagues drew up plans to expand the electorate into one that could reelect Obama. In Ohio, for example, a “barber shop and beauty salon” strategy was designed to get likely Obama supporters, particularly African-Americans, to register to vote when they went for a haircut. “Faith captains” were assigned to churches to encourage parishioners to turn out for Obama. “Condo captains” were told to know every potential Obama voter in their building. The goal was like nothing seen in presidential politics: Each Obama worker would be responsible for about 50 voters in key precincts over the course of the campaign. By Election Day, that worker would know much about the lives of those 50 voters, including whether they had made it to the polls. Romney’s team talked about a ratio of thousands of voters per worker. It would prove to be a crucial difference.
It was here that Remain performed badly. The reason why working-class voters tumbled out from council estates to vote Leave was more about word of mouth than mass media - conversations in hairdressers, in the pub, at work, at the garden gate, with family. Voting Leave was valorised - reinforced and confirmed by people's daily conversation. The failure of the Remain campaign was to rely on mainstream media to feed this conversation whereas Leave fed enough information to activists to provide a drip-drip of arguments, refutations, reinforcements and messages into those community conversations.
It is dispiriting that people in influential positions misunderstand communications so much - Remain felt position and authority were enough to get the campaign over the line and ignored the importance of trust and brand equity. And - if Van Reenan's article is anything to go by - some Remain supporters are still looking for others to blame rather than the abject failings of their own campaign. Saying it was the media simply doesn't wash.