Ben Cobley

Ben Cobley writes the blog A Free Left Blog and is author of The Tribe: the Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity. He is a journalist by trade and a former Labour Party activist.

March 27, 2019

“The mighty collective power of the UK’s £20bn advertising industry – which has been united in its support for Remain – has failed to find the compelling messaging we so desperately needed. Shame on us.”

For Christine Beale, global editor-in-chief for the industry magazine Campaign, and  her fellow PR and advertising gurus, Brexit presented a mighty wake-up call. Their job is to ‘sell’ us buying choices and opinions, and on the 24th June 2016 their collective power had been found wanting. The sector was left licking its wounds.

The Referendum was direct democracy, unmediated by party politics and our first-past-the-post electoral system. Votes in safe seats counted equally to those in swing seats. The fixation of party managers on the latter, which simplifies their messaging efforts no end in general elections, was only of marginal importance here.

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The pointlessness of a 'People's Vote'

By Matthew Goodwin

For those in the business of influencing, the message was clear – they had to do a lot better. They had to get serious, and far more political, and that meant turning their attention to democracy itself.

Once their initial outrage and despair had cleared, it was clear that campaigners for Remain were going to continue the fight, and that they would not be short of funding to do so. Over time they have consolidated around two fully-staffed operations: People’s Vote (headed by the City PR man Roland Rudd, with Peter Mandelson as a director) and Best for Britain, Gina Miller’s outfit that George Soros has funded.

A large part of their efforts has been focused on media management straight from the conventional PR-Mandelson playbook: lining up a succession of important and well-known folk to make targeted interventions in the public arena, co-ordinated by messaging and timed to have maximum impact on politics.

Day after wearisome day we have seen and heard the results of this as figures from our economic, cultural and political elites have been wheeled out to recycle the approved lines of the day: some variation on ‘Brexit is a disaster and must be overturned for our own good’.

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These efforts have appeared overwhelming at times, dominating our public sphere. But the campaigners have also realised that this sort of pressure is only part of what they need; that they are vulnerable to charges of elitism. They have seen that direct democracy is different; that 17.4 million votes needs more than a renewed Establishment push to overcome.

Hence the campaigners sought to reach out and build a ‘movement’; to defeat one instance of direct democracy with other versions – hoping that this will culminate in a second referendum on their terms; a People’s Vote. The drive to convert Leave voters goes on, but with limited success. It has been in mobilising Remain voters to participate – by posting on their social media, by marching, signing petitions and making donations – that they have been much more successful.

Just recently we have seen the astonishing success of these efforts. At the time of writing the Revoke Article 50 petition has secured nearly 6 million signatures. At the same time campaigners have managed to get mainstream media to report their claims that their march in London on Saturday attracted a million people (the likely real number is less than 400,000; still impressive but nowhere near the iconic figure claimed).

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We know that Remain voters tend to be much more educated, younger, more networked and also wealthier than Leave voters on average. Check out the Revoke petition sorted by constituency and you will find a list of the wealthiest urban areas in the country, overwhelmingly in London. They are places full of people connected into networks of political, economic and cultural power; and also fully equipped with new technology to access the latest messaging and talking points.

In other words, the average Remainer participating in these activities is the sort of person that advertising and consumer public relations target anyway as a matter of course. They have proved relatively easy to reach and to mobilise.

Brexit voters are rather more elusive. This has been both a strength and a weakness for the pro-Brexit side. It is a strength because they have been mostly impervious to the daily bombardment of media messaging, both before the Referendum and since. But it is a weakness because this lack of connectedness reflects a general lack of access and organisation, a lack of political power beyond that basic ability to go out and vote.

We can see this in the contrast between the several well-attended anti-Brexit marches and the dearth of similar efforts – or rather successful efforts – to defend Brexit. Saturday’s gathering in London may have been much smaller than the campaigners and their media supporters said, but 400,000 is still a big number – and the widespread positive media coverage testifies to its success.

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Brexit's unheard voices

By Rakib Ehsan

Compare this to Leave Means Leave’s effort, led by Nigel Farage, albeit without his presence for most of it. The idea of marching from Sunderland to London to protest is a powerful one, evoking the Jarrow March of the 1930s. However Farage is a divisive figure, the numbers have been small and the effort has gained little media coverage.

This relates to a wider issue. While the London media can hardly move for pro-Remain voices from various groups, pro-Leave ones are much thinner on the ground. Pro-Brexit activities struggle for funds, and are hampered by the greater dispersion of Leave voters. Compare Remain and Leave campaigning now and you see on the one hand a professional, well-funded and proactive operation and on the other a motley crew of small organisations and individuals who are constantly in reactive mode, bickering with each other and responding to what the other side are doing rather than setting the agenda themselves.

The Brexit vote was perhaps the only way in which those people who voted for Brexit could bypass established political and economic power and get themselves heard on their own terms.

At least for a brief window, a powerless, disorganised rabble shook things up and defeated the powers-that-be – by voting.

However, those powers have regrouped, adjusted and redeployed since this rebellion. They have mobilised their most ardent supporters, gathering them together to form a group that has developed a strong identity; a class consciousness even. They have learned the techniques of direct democracy and deployed them to re-assert their own power.

These and other counter-moves have left the largest exercise in direct democracy this country has seen in tatters, torn apart from every side: from within the Government itself, by most of our media and major institutions, but also online and in the streets.

This is what political power does. It wins.