When Vote Leave campaigner Michael Gove said that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’ he was expressing the argument of populists everywhere. Today, as Britain and the world tries to interpret this unexpected victory, it is clear that nativist instincts and pent-up anti-elitist resentment can secure victory even in the face of a nearly unified political, business, labour and academic elite. This is a massive vote of no confidence in the establishment.
We wanted to share five key insights into what happened in the UK that may be applicable to campaigns around the world.
1) Identity politics trumped economic self-interest. In the 1990s, ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’ was the guiding principle for centre left politicians trying to retake power. Over the last decade, identity has become an increasingly powerful driver of the vote, reaching another crescendo in the UK on Thursday. While the Remain campaign had a monomaniacal focus on the economic risks of Brexit, the Leave campaign built on a sense of grievance about change in the country. Their slogan was ‘take control’, but it could easily have been ‘Let’s take our country back’.
This emotionally resonant message was felt particularly powerfully in post-industrial, working class communities in the Midlands and Northern England; and had particular purchase with older voters. Working with trade unionists who were concerned about the campaign, we conducted a poll two months prior to polling day which showed the clear class and age pattern in voting – polls conducted on polling day show a similar picture:
A key lesson here is the danger of allowing such anger to grow without an adequate response. The Labour party began to lose touch with its working class base soon after 1997, ignored a dramatic fall off of its base voters in 2001, and has kept moving away from them ever since. The British electoral system allowed UKIP to score 13% of the vote but only 1 of 650 MPs last year. The modernizing, pro-trade centre colluded with the metropolitan liberal left to keep concerns about immigration away from seriously influencing policy. This is the result of that history at least as much as it is a result of campaign decisions over the last few weeks.
2) The Leave campaign got the better of the message battle. At the general election of 2015, the Conservative party achieved victory by refusing to talk about immigration. They knew it was a major issue, but judged – correctly – that talking about it would simply focus attention on the topic and drive up the vote of the populist party to their right: UKIP. With a compliant media, they were able to shut the issue down and keep the focus on the economy and leadership.
They tried to pursue the same strategy in this referendum with disastrous consequences.
This time, the media were unwilling to keep immigration out of the story and we spent days focused on that issue – an issue which Leave led on by 40% or more.
The size of that Leave lead was a result of a second faulty media judgment. The Remain campaign didn’t just try and ignore immigration at the end of the campaign; they ignored it throughout. In the early months of the campaign, when they should have been undermining the idea that leaving the EU would solve immigration, they were patting themselves on the back for keeping the focus on the economy. As a result, that deficit on immigration did not shift at any point.
In contrast, the Leave campaign had a radically different strategy. They spent the first nine months of the campaign trying to close down their deficit on the economy; only turning to their strong suit of immigration at the close. They spent time dreaming up plans for trade deals with India, China and America – not because they thought they would win the economic argument, but because they knew they couldn’t afford to be too far behind on it.
The result of these strategies was that Leave led Remain on immigration by 40 points, but trailed on the economy by just 5.
The Remain campaign let their judgment of the media dynamic determine their message strategy. They got that judgment wrong, and their message wrong.
It is worth noting that this victory for Leave came in the face of a strong, data-driven ground campaign for Remain. Working with the same consultants who the Tories used at the General Election in 2015, they modeled the electorate and used it to guide online ads and field activity. Whether it delivered an uplift in their vote or not is unclear, but it certainly was blown out of the water by their failure on message.
3) Cameron’s short-term political calculations got us into this mess. It is quite peculiar for a Prime Minister to call a referendum to propose something he opposes. There was no great public clamour for a referendum at the time; the proportion of Brits saying Europe was one of their top issues was around 6 percent. Some of Ed Miliband’s strongest debate moments came when he opposed an EU referendum.
And yet here we are.
David Cameron called the referendum almost entirely to pacify rebels inside his party. The Conservative party has had a strong and negative focus on Europe for 30 years. The issue was being used as a tool of division inside the party. To buy quiet, David Cameron felt he had to offer the referendum. Perhaps he was right that his position genuinely was at risk, but as a sitting Prime Minister up against a weak Labour party it is hard to believe he really had to make that call.
4) Big issues to come. The referendum result unleashes a number of big issues for Britain and Europe. The EU does have provision for a country to exit, but any trade deal requires the assent of every one of the EU’s remaining 27 members. This puts the UK in a very weak negotiating position, particularly given the EU’s desire to disincentivise future exits.
Any deal which allows access to the free market is likely to have provisions for free movement of labour, acceptance of EU regulatory standards and mandatory contributions to the EU budget – precisely the things the Leave campaign wanted to be rid of.
At the same time, some key legislation in the UK – including the Good Friday Agreement which is the foundation of peace in Northern Ireland – have provisions which would be broken by Brexit. Renegotiating such texts may open Pandora’s Box.
On the other hand, the UK’s current account deficit of 7% makes it one of the main sources of demand in the weakened EU.
A new Prime Minister, due to be in place by October, will have to navigate all this with Nigel Farage and UKIP standing at the side, criticizing them for failing to deliver on the spirit of Brexit. They may also face a new Labour leader after a motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn was presented today for debate next Tuesday.
5) Online polls did okay, telephone polls failed. It was at best a mixed night for British pollsters. Only three of nine polling companies got the overall result right; two of these getting the margin within a couple of points.
The most striking observation is that the online polls were systematically more accurate than telephone polls. This wasn’t just a quirk of the final polls – the online polls consistently showed a much tighter race than telephone.
For the last two general elections, there has been no measurable difference in the accuracy of online versus phone polls after a long period where phone polls were the gold standard. Now, it looks like the baton has been passed online. Whatever share of mobile calls phone pollsters made, and whatever adjustments they made in light of the 2015 polling miss, they were out by between 5 and 12 points on the margin.
It is hard to see phone polls again playing a major role in UK elections unless there are dramatic methodological changes.
The data from our March message poll is available through an interactive portal here