As I write this, Thursday’s EU Referendum looks too close to call, although polls seem to indicate that the Remain camp is moving back on top. I don’t want to use this blog to discuss politics, particularly having seen the mindless abuse that the Leave camp has subjected Remain supporters to – see the comments on Rio Ferdinand’s thoughtful and well-argued Facebook post as an example.
Instead I want to look at the public relations and communications strategies around the campaign, and what it means for PR professionals, and more importantly for political dialogue in this country going forward. I have five conclusions:
1. Lies are going unchallenged
While both sides have come out with some pretty unbelievable statements during the campaign – voting to Remain will prevent World War 3, for example, the Leave campaign seems to be basing its central positions on the complete untruth that the UK sends £350m to Brussels every week. This ignores the rebate that is applied BEFORE any money changes hands, and also ignores all the other grants and support, such as to agriculture that the UK benefits from. Despite being proved to be a palpable lie by experts such as the independent UK Statistics Authority, it is still being peddled by the Leave campaign. It seems that interviewers have given up challenging Leave spokespeople on this, and newer misinformation such as the alleged imminent arrival of hordes of Turkish migrants following their country’s accession to the EU – an event that is highly unlikely to ever happen.
2. Experts are bad
Linked to this communication strategy is painting any expert that disagrees with Leave as not worth listening to. The IMF, Barack Obama, other European leaders, business leaders, David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, Nobel prize-winning economists – they are all part of a conspiracy against the general public. Indeed, Michael Gove himself said “The UK has had enough of experts” – presumably why he is at the head of the Leave campaign.
On a more serious note this distrust of knowledge is mirrored in Donald Trump’s appeal in the US – and shows that the traditional dislike of politicians has spread to anyone in authority or positions of influence. This is deeply disturbing as it removes one of the major planks of an advanced democracy – people spend years studying a subject, become an expert and then use their knowledge for the greater good. Why bother when a man with bad hair can solve the world’s problems by shouting and building a wall?
3. The devil has the best tunes
Incumbents always have a hard job. People may be innately conservative (with a small c), but they have a record that they can be judged on. By contrast the Leave campaign is freely promising the earth, spending the mythical £350m on a whole raft of schemes, from the NHS to farmers, despite having neither power nor accountability. As anyone that has repitched for a piece of business knows, it is easy for rivals to upstage you by gulling clients with ideas that you know are impossible to implement. This makes the Remain campaign’s job harder, particularly as their opponents’ rhetoric gets more and more fanciful.
4. Language and tone
In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell wrote “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” He saw keeping language simple as a way to communicate with the wider public, and get across complex theories in ways that were understandable to all. What he didn’t foresee was for the same tactics to be used to actively bamboozle the populace with glib statements that cannot be put into action. Again, this is very similar to the rhetoric employed by Trump in the US election. Looking at the campaign names Leave is much more active and punchy than Remain – it sounds more exciting, masking the real message in a dangerous way.
When he promised a referendum David Cameron said that he’d only argue for Remain if he received concessions from the EU in certain areas. While he did negotiate improvements, this illustrates his half-hearted approach to the whole issue. He has dramatically underestimated his opponents, appeared ambivalent until campaigning began and struggled to match the passion of the Leavers, who have been working up to this point for over 10 years. Cameron seems to have failed to have learnt the lessons of the Scottish Referendum which showed how difficult it is for the status quo to be positioned as a positive choice. Ultimately, he may well pay for this lack of passion with his job – whichever way the vote goes.
The EU Referendum is a once in a generation event, therefore it is right that arguments are made with passion – the vote really does matter. However what campaigning shows is that there is a deep fissure developing between the electorate and those they elect, with trust breaking down and people turning away from the facts, and embracing hearsay and lies. The ironic thing is that the people the Leavers are led by (Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage), are as much a part of the establishment as their Remain opponents – they are simply happy to embrace the disaffected and turn their grievances against their political rivals. The rules of political communication have been not just ignored, but completely ripped up, meaning that whatever the result it will leave a fractious, divided and ultimately poorer political landscape across the UK.
I’ve always tried to keep my blog apolitical, criticising politicians from all parties equally. But, given the seriousness of the rise of UKIP, I’m suspending my impartiality for a week. Why? Put simply, I believe that Nigel Farage’s party is the biggest threat to face the UK (and in particular Cambridge) tech sector for many years.
First off, I don’t seriously believe that UKIP will garner enough MPs in the 2015 election to be part of a coalition. But what it has done is to shift the debate sharply to the right in two key areas (immigration and the EU), causing the Tories to talk about curbs on the free movement of workers and set a date for an in/out EU referendum. And given that the Tories are likely to be a central part of a future coalition that is potentially very damaging.
Aside from the general business problems that limiting immigration and leaving the EU would bring, it would hit Cambridge and the startup tech scene in four distinct ways:
Many of the highly skilled individuals currently working at or building tech companies originally came from overseas to study in Cambridge. It is already more difficult to get a student visa, and making it harder will simply put off the brightest and the best, who will head elsewhere. And every clever student who goes elsewhere diminishes the wider Cambridge academic population and impacts its reputation and attractiveness to new students.
Pretty much every Cambridge startup I’ve worked with has an incredibly diverse workforce, with employees from every corner of the world. They’ve chosen to come here, or have remained after study, and helped build amazing success stories with their skills. These are incredibly sought after and mobile people – limiting entry for them to the UK will mean they simply go elsewhere.
Charles Wang, the founder of US software company Computer Associates once had a policy of only employing first or second generation immigrants in management roles. Wang himself was born in Shanghai and moved to New York when he was 8 years old. His reasoning was that immigrants had drive, entrepreneurialism and a desire to make something of themselves. Given they often arrived with nothing, they had no safety net, unlike established citizens who had never faced the dangers of real failure. Wang’s view is limited – I know plenty of driven, successful entrepreneurs from stable British families, but he has a point. Limiting immigration removes these potential entrepreneurs and the benefits they bring to their adopted country when it comes to jobs, taxes and the wider economy.
A tech cluster like Cambridge isn’t about individuals, no matter how skilled they are. It is about how they interact together and share and develop ideas, based on their own knowledge and experience. Diversity is key – if you bring together a group of people with similar backgrounds and experience you’re unlikely to get the range of ideas that comes from a wider group. Ideas play off each other and grow – take away diversity and you severely weaken the idea gene pool.
In answering my points, critics may well make one of two arguments. Firstly, that we’ll still let in the best, most skilled people – it is the jobless benefit seekers that we want to turn away. That may be true but will they want to come to a country that appears so unfriendly to outsiders? And, how do you spot the entrepreneur or Nobel Prize winning physicist to be? They could be the yet-to-be-born child of immigrants that initially came over here to work in agriculture or to escape persecution in their home country.
Secondly, people will point to the US, which has restrictive immigration policies, yet the biggest tech/entrepreneur sector in the world. The difference is that the US is a country built on immigration, with a culture that rewards risk-taking and encourages people to try again after failure. We still don’t have that attitude in the UK, and we need free radicals to act as a catalyst to help change things.
The last 20 years have seen a huge expansion in the Cambridge tech scene, driven by the combination of ideas, skills and experience of people from many different backgrounds. Cutting off or limiting the flow of entrepreneurs, workers, students and researchers from outside the UK would completely change this energy and dynamism. It would still survive, but would be weaker, more insular and less exciting. That’s why it is important to tell politicians of all parties that we want to encourage responsible immigration and EU membership to build a successful Cambridge tech sector that benefits us all.
One of the innovations of the last election was the first ever televised leadership debates in the UK. Indeed, many credit Nick Clegg’s TV performance with the Liberal Democrat’s dramatically raised share of the vote and subsequent kingmaker role in the coalition government.
So, you’d think that leaders would be keen to repeat (or even extend) this experiment given that it was proven to engage with voters and give a chance to discuss the issues head to head. Err, no. Broadcasters have proposed an extended series of three debates, with one featuring Cameron and Miliband, the second Cameron, Miliband and Clegg and a third adding UKIP leader Nigel Farage to the mix. The reaction has been muted from the main parties, while the Green Party (who currently have the same number of MPs as UKIP) taking legal advice regarding their exclusion.
Leaving aside my personal antipathy to Farage and the xenophobic, unthinking attitude he represents, there are multiple reasons for including him in a set piece debate. We have freedom of speech in the UK, he is the leader of a national party with one MP, and I’d hope that the political strategists of the three major parties can come up with a range of counter arguments (that don’t pander to the same baseless xenophobia) if they want to impress the public at large. I do agree the Greens should be involved in some way, but that is just a detail to overcome, rather than a reason to call off the whole exercise.
What is more worrying is the complete lack of interest in a rival proposal (from The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and YouTube) to host debates that would be streamed live on YouTube. The Digital Debate campaign points out that a similar set of four debates at the last US election garnered 27 million views. More importantly it allowed politicians to engage with younger voters, half of whom primarily get their news online. While the exact form of the event is not yet set (and no party has formally agreed to it), streamed debates lend themselves well to sparking discussions on social media, are easy to share and create an online event that will engage voters.
Given that there is widespread dissatisfaction at the limited real world experience of politicians, surely anything that potentially engages them with the electorate can only be a good thing? A quick search on the internet finds that even the candidates for Sherriff of Jackson County in Mississippi were happy to debate online – why then has there been an overwhelming silence on the proposals from the UK’s politicians?
As a PR person I know that there are times when you have to turn down a good idea just in case it leads to unintended future consequences. But at a time when the electorate are so fed up with anodyne career politicians that many will either not vote or will support UKIP, it is time to be brave. Political spin doctors, and their masters, should embrace the online opportunity as a chance to rebuild the political process, rather than shying away from it. Be bold, be modern and make 2015 an online election.