Tom Waterhouse was Deputy Head of Ground Campaign for Vote Leave. He blogs at www.ballotboxblog.com.
You usually have a gut feeling about whether you’ve won or lost an election. By 10pm on polling day the hectic campaigning grinds to a halt, the buzz of activity dissipating like heat from a stopped engine. Deep down, you think you know.
However, when polls closed on 23rd June that gut feeling wasn’t there. After a Dawn Raid at 4.30am and then campaigning throughout the day, Vote Leave staff returned to a packed HQ on the seventh floor of Westminster Tower to watch the results come in. Storms throughout the day hadn’t relieved the humidity. At 12:15am Sunderland declared and we’d done much better than expected. Butterflies. Swindon, Broxbourne and South Tyneside followed and we’d done slightly above expectations. Dare to hope. Oxford, Wandsworth and Glasgow were all disappointing. It’s turning away from us. At 3:25am Sheffield, which we had expected to lose heavily, came in at 51 per cent for Leave. Then we knew. A bunch of 30-somethings had beaten the Establishment, creating a political shockwave that was felt across the world. How had this happened?
All campaigns are made up of an air war (played out in the media) and a ground war (fought by local activists). To understand the four fundamentals of an effective air war you have to go back around 25 years to another ground-breaking campaign: Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential bid, documented in The War Room. James Carville, Clinton’s lead strategist, was responsible for the first and second of those fundamentals: message discipline (strict adherence to a short list of key themes) and clear lines of communication (achieved through the concept of the War Room itself, with all the key players in one room). The third is rapid rebuttal of opposition attacks, overseen by George Stephanopoulous, the head of communications. Fourth, articulated behind the scenes by Stan Greenberg, is the need to build a coalition of voters; maintaining core support whilst reaching out to other parts of the electorate.
The closing scenes of The War Room show the crowd outside the Old State House in Arkansas cheering President-elect Clinton. Among them was Philip Gould, a Labour Party strategist who had worked on the campaign. He helped ensure these fundamentals were adopted for New Labour’s 1997 campaign, explaining the entire Labour modernisation process in The Unfinished Revolution. It’s a brilliant book by a remarkable man and its influence on British politics is hard to overstate. Peter Oborne observed in December 2014 that it was said to be treated by Tory modernisers “with the same veneration and awe as the Bible.” The Tories’ success in 2015 owed much to a message that was drilled down to just four words: long term economic plan. The mastermind behind such ingenious brevity was Lynton Crosby. Rafael Behr’s must-read piece for the Guardian reveals that Remain believed the referendum could be won by emulating Crosby’s “relentless, narrow focus on economic security and the risks of gambling on the unknown.” However, formulating a sound strategy is one thing, implementing it is another.
Remain actually started the campaign fairly well. In elections, it’s not what you tell people that’s important, it’s what they remember. If George Osborne’s “Brexit will cost every household £4,300” claim had been repeated, it could have been effective. Instead, Remain tried to constantly increase the level of scaremongering to a point that it lost credibility. It seemed like the ratchet broke when the Prime Minster warned that leaving the EU could actually endanger peace on the continent. Any lingering credibility was shot to pieces by the Chancellor’s failed “punishment budget”. Instead of just hammering things home, Remain’s message discipline was very poor. By contrast, Vote Leave doggedly stuck to its three messages: take back control; £350m a week that could be spent on the NHS; take back control of our borders as Turkey is joining the EU. On the first fundamental, Dominic Cummings (our lead strategist), Paul Stephenson (our communications director) and Robert Oxley (our head of media_ totally outclassed Britain Stronger In Europe’s team.
The Remain campaign (made up of the Government, the various warring factions of the Labour Party, ConservativesIn, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP) undoubtedly had a tougher time ensuring the second fundamental of clear lines of communication was in place. When Vote Leave was designated as the official campaign, it easily out-muscled the rival Leave.EU/Grassroots Out/UKIP outfit. Internally, Vote Leave ran a pretty tight ship, not least thanks to the efforts of Victoria Woodcock, the multi-talented Operations Director.
Leave were no less effective in rapidly rebutting attacks from Remain. This was partly due to the fact that members of Vote Leave’s media team were on Remain’s press list from day one, ensuring press releases were seen the moment they were sent. However, the main reason for such impressive rapid rebuttal was due to the hard work and ingenuity of Richard Howell and Oliver Lewis, our researchers. They were tireless in their activity and fearless in savaging anyone who spoke against leaving the EU. Remain were woeful on this third fundamental, encapsulated by the Prime Minister’s panicky press conference on “Brexit lies”.
The economy, immigration and the NHS always make up the top three issues among voters at elections. Vote Leave campaigned on two of them. Remain had to rely just on the economy, which itself only evokes a rational but not emotive response – the latter being far more effective at influencing someone’s voting decision. Cummings found a way to give Vote Leave much greater potential for building a wider coalition of voters – and yet, brilliantly, still maintained message discipline.
Of the four fundamentals outlined by the 1992 Clinton campaign, Vote Leave did better on all of them. Cummings and a key quartet of Stephenson, Oxley, Lewis and Howell deserve enormous credit for devising and implementing such an outstanding strategy. The overall lesson is clear: whatever else changes in the way we run elections, the fundamentals, established 25 years ago, remain the same.