It’s Not the Economy, Stupid. It’s my Country, Stupid: Identity could trump economic appeals in the Referendum
What profiteth a man to have a few extra pennies in his pocket tomorrow if he has a gun against his head today?
This was one of the take-aways from the canvassing I undertook last weekend. (Skip straight to the bottom for the campaign tips.) The identity answer- what it means to be British or more particularly English- the state of our country, our values and ‘how we do things around here’- and above all the issue of us versus them (immigration) is over powering any economic answer.
This is a report from the front line. Anecdotal. And my expectations going in were un-calibrated, and on a terrain I did not know. So drawing conclusions is hard. But these impressions stick with me: that moderate Tory voters are confused and seek a firm line, a way through the noise that shows government is in control; that targeted minorities are hearing the alarm; that moderate LibDems/centre left are mobilising; but that the vast majority of Newcastle folk lie untouched. And the key ‘prospector’ segment (following Chris Rose’s methodology) are unmoved. Europe has yet to become sexy to them in the campaign. Above all, the immigration/I Want My Country Back (IWMCB) argument is resonating.
My expectations and surprises
I expected some Leavers to conform to type – and we got them: a bald-headed middle aged man ranted at me about all life’s problems (he was angry, albeit not aggressive and was feeling the economic pinch); the Leave leader on the High St marched up to us, his Leave placard aloft, looking like an extra from Last of the Summer Wine: he accused us of being ‘traitors’ for flying the Union Jack and wibbled on. But there were three conversations that surprised me on the downside:
Oil rig worker: conversation on flight (estimate early mid 50s, white)
‘I get the economic argument. But I want my country back. [IWMCB] We’ve lost control of our borders.’ Father of daughter going to university. Worked extensively abroad, back from Africa. Friendly, offered advice on where to go in Newcastle for culture and more refined stuff. He enjoyed walking in the countryside and wanted to retire to “Cornwall, because it’s how it used to be 20-30 years ago in Britain,’ he said. I assumed he meant wild, unspoiled, desolate. I know see he probably implied ‘foreigner free.’ His manner was pleasant and never once rancorous. He was wearing sweatpants and jacket, his breath smelled faintly of alcohol. Having been on the end of a 16 hour journey, he was remarkably fresh. He told me that the oil price was rallying and that this would be good for him, if not for car drivers. When our conversation ebbed, he listened to AC/DC on a new ish IPhone 6.
Given his exposure to foreign parts; his relative economic security; no obvious signs of anger with the world, my assumptions were that such a man would at least be open to the European question. Not so. I popped the ‘Are you voting In?’ question on leaving the plane and he was quite firmly for Leave.
Ironically, on deplaning in Newcastle, I encountered a fairly strict passport control process. We were all vetted and the Officer asked me ‘Where had I travelled from?’ When I replied ‘Brussels’ He continued ‘I didn’t know that route was served from Newcastle.’ I explained that I had travelled via Amsterdam and he let me pass.
I wanted to draw this control to Mr Oil Rig Worker’s attention, but he had gone. Whether even such direct evidence would convince, is of course moot.
Retired Merchant Mariner – Northumberland St, Newcastle’s main shopping drag (estimate mid 60s, white); retired Merchant Mariner/other (estimate early 60s , Indian)
A more elderly tall gentleman, with apparently deep knowledge of the shipping business (he told me a lot about how shipping companies were not paying people equally, using differential tax arrangements etc.). Again, a man with international experience, by no means a little Englander and calm in demeanour. He also accepted good economic arguments for staying but brought up the control of borders and security of our nation as shaping his thinking. He himself did not appear to be economically pinched. Would he spend his retirement gardening, I mused? ‘Golfing’, he replied.
Unlike Mr Oil Rig Worker, he bemoaned the welter of facts and economic arguments flying around. He did not know what to think.
My read was that such a man was looking for leadership out of these competing stories and reassurance that we were in control.
As we chatted, we were joined by another tall gentleman, who it turned out had worked in the Merchant Marine, and was the son of an Indian immigrant. He was concerned about new immigrants who were coming in and not doing their share. ‘My father came here with nothing and worked his way up, the new lot are not hardworking.’ I asked him what he thought of the Polish migrants? ‘Oh, they are much like we were, hardworking.’ This did not however soften his belief that somehow the EU was behind all this, although I think he was more open than the other Leavers. He was also the only member of an ethnic minority to express a Leave position to me.
Estate Agent Owner, leafy suburb of Jesmond
Our Saturday morning stand stood outside this man’s shop – which was very ordered, calm, business was good. Again, no sign of a man or a concern under the financial cosh. Asking him bluntly if he was with me on June 23rd, he replied: ‘I am for Leave, for the sake of my daughter, taking control of my country.’ [IWMCB] Again, I would have plugged Mr Estate Agent for solid local Tory; and clearly the Daily Mail/Telegraph offensive on immigration is getting through to him.
A snapshot of supporters
A very quick and dirty summary of those openly supporting and even coming over to shake our hands/congratulate us included:
- Young marrieds with kids in Jesmond
- Independent types
- Some young professionals
- Gay and lesbian
- Most ethnic minorities. We also had an Indian man approach and offer a team of his supporters to come and canvass
- The man who was openly opposed to Farage and angered by his politics
There was little sign that organised or traditional blue collar workers were being mobilised, but this may have more to do with the locations in which we were canvassing than any general lack of awareness.
I read from this – perhaps over interpreting – that the values war launched by Daily Mail and Farage is sensitising some groups to the need to ‘come out’ and/or register.
Two other points of view
Middle aged tax accountant lady (soon off to Amalfi on holiday)
Inclining to Remain but needed convincing that there was a plan to shake up the Commission and bear down on red tape. I told about the Better Regulation programme and the governmentt’s own red tape-cutting agenda. She also reported that there was lively discussion in her workplace about the referendum.
Younger female A&E doctor
Worried about sovereignty and UK having democratic control – but accepted that the NHS needed EU staff. Undecided. I countered by arguing the need for medical research, EU workers etc. and that most of the medical professional bodies were solidly remain. Again, the fact that this lady was hesitating suggests to me that the ‘heart’ argument – control over our lives – was trumping her ‘head’ argument, i.e. the absolute necessity for staff and skills from EU to run NHS.
Modest proposals: feedback for Campaign High Command
Standard advice when making any public ‘fear’ announcement (e.g. FIRE!) is to couple it with an action or way forward (e.g. ‘Exit over there!’ Or ‘Use this fire extinguisher’). Remain is shouting ‘fire’ - but there is no corresponding message to say, ‘And here is our plan to take you forward, lead you out of the current crisis.’
A credible leadership offer that explained how the renegotiated EU deal and benefits could now take us forward – and how UK would lead this – might therefore be useful.
Appeals to the heart – to emotionally rich metaphors, myths and stories about Brits and our success in Europe is needed. We are at the end of any utility of the ‘fact offensive.’
IWMCB – I Want My Country Back – can be countered with: back where? Back to the smog of 1950s? Thalidomide of the 1960s? Dirty beaches and crap food of the 1970s? Here we can contrast a dirty, unsafe, grey and bland out-of-Europe with the modernity, choice and ‘cool’ of in.
The Campaign should target better the ‘Prospectors’ (see Chris Rose’s Three Worlds Model) which are those folks who are more consumerist, status conscious, and aspiring/designer label types – for whom Leave would take away freedoms, choice and impose delay, and make the UK dull, cut-off and colourless.
Canvassing Notes and Feedback
Context and thanks
I participated in a series of campaign actions led by Nick Milligan and supported by Nigel Reaver and my god daughter Chloe Marquand. I thank them for their professionalism, excellent organisation and good humour. Plugging into their existing process was both easy and enjoyable and I would recommend highly to any other colleagues looking to campaign to join Nick, Nigel and their teams. Jessie Jacobs in connecting me to them was also very efficient and the materials we used were good, my thanks to her equally.
A key objective of this mission was to alert voters, particularly students, to the vote and to get them to register
1. What: The actions we took
I travelled over from Brussels in the morning and began ‘guerrilla campaigning’: engaging with the public at certain strategic points, e.g. talking with my neighbour on the plane, the staff in shops I visited (WH Smiths, Curry’s) and restaurants. Thursday evening I spent in the company of my god daughter Chloe and her housemates – where the issue of the referendum was widely discussed.
With Nick, Nigel and Chloe we spent the late morning/early afternoon leafleting, with a Stronger In stand and talking with the public on Northumberland St (main shopping drag of Newcastle town centre). Our process was to work in pairs, leafleting on either side of the street.
Nick, Chloe and I spent late morning/early afternoon in Jesmond (leafy-ish well-to-do suburb) opposite the Tesco, leafleting etc. similar to Friday. The location (Acorn Road) is a good catchment area for students. We also used additional materials from other IN groups (e.g. Labour, Green) and we stuck up posters made by Wolfgang Tillmans from the #IN For/We are Europe group. Chloe has good contacts with the Newcastle Art Centre, where such posters are freely available.
I do not have precise data on how many contacts were made with the public or registration cards handed out. Chloe Marquand estimated she made 50 contacts on Saturday alone and I estimate I had about 20 one-to-one conversations as well about 30+ leaflets/hand outs.
2. So What? Observations, comments, learnings on campaign tactics
Campaigning Tips/ Comments on literature
Handing out Leaflets
Nigel advised me and Chloe to hand out leaflets ‘upside down’ to the public, thereby forcing a reader to turn it around and read it—a good way to gain attention
Sticking on ‘I'm IN’ badges
I found it useful (and saved time, built rapport) to have a few sticky badges on my lapel. I would ask a voter if they were for In, and if yes, ask if they would affiliate by wearing a badge. If yes, then I would take a badge off me and put it on them. This process was well received, it was faster than trying to pull one off a roll and it created a sense of ‘medal giving’ that binds our In supporters. It also signals to colleagues working further down the street that these folks had already been canvassed and then would not be bothered again.
The Labour In leaflet with a map of the UK with benefits attributed to regions was also deemed by Nick to be an effective tool (I did not have occasion myself to use it myself). Nigel provided a convenient benefits list that both Chloe and I used as a quick reference. The small business card with registration details to target students etc. was useful and easy to press into voters’ hands. Flying the Union Jack was very positive as it reinforces our patriotic commitment and drew fire from Leave/Kippers, making the point that no one ‘owns’ the flag.
- Nick Crosby (@NickCrosby), 11/6/2016