Mark MacGregor is the former Deputy Director of Policy Exchange and former Chief Executive of the Conservative Party.
With the EU Referendum campaign set to officially launch shortly, Joe Pike’s excellent book about the Scottish referendum, Project Fear, offers some important lessons for both camps.
Get the fundamentals right
In Scotland, the Better Together campaign focused on the uncertainty and financial dangers of independence, particularly around the currency and over dependence on oil revenues. That same theme of risk, whether leaving or staying in the EU, will determine the outcome of this next vote. But keeping the campaign focused on the key arguments, particularly in a long campaign, is hugely difficult in practice. When the Yes campaign in Scotland proposed free childcare in their White Paper, Better Together could have been drawn into a debate about the merits of this proposal. Similarly, Alistair Darling was criticised for focusing on the currency question in both referendum debates – Alex Salmond described it as a “one trick pony” – when, in truth, that was precisely the approach required.
As in the Scottish referendum, the EU campaigns will need to balance their efforts to enthuse committed supporters and persuade swing voters. The Yes campaign proved brilliant at energising its core supporters but, ultimately, failed to win over undecideds. There are already signs that the Leave campaigns are adopting a similar (losing) approach.
In Scotland, it was women voters who swung decisively against independence, with large numbers having been undecided until near the vote. With polls showing a quarter of women undecided about the EU question – double the figure for men – they will again be the key to victory.
Throughout the Scottish referendum, the main characters in the campaign seemed to personify the nature of the choice. Alex Salmond – the emotionally charged rhetorician offering a dazzling but risky future. Alistair Darling – the dull, stolid voice of gloom, selling safety and security. It is easy, in hindsight, to wonder if either side had been led by a different figure whether the result would have been different. That is why the choice of leaders will matter for the EU referendum.
A vital consideration is, however, not just the individual attractiveness of each ‘voice’ but whether that combination maximises the appeal to undecideds. With David Cameron and Alan Johnson taking the lead for Stronger In, the lack of a prominent woman could be an issue, particularly if Leave selects Priti Patel or Kate Hoey to lead Leave. The Prime Minister has sometimes struggled against female politicians – think Harriet Harman in PMQs – and that would be compounded if having to debate one of his own female Ministerial colleagues.
The choice of leaders is particularly acute for Leave because most senior political figures are of similar standing. There is also the Farage dilemma. Just as in Scotland, where picking someone other than Gordon Brown to lead Better Together caused constant problems, so leaving Farage out altogether would be an invitation for trouble. Perhaps, like Jim Murphy in the Scottish referendum, the UKIP leader could be despatched on his own “100 towns in 100 days” speaking tour standing on a beer crate. There are, though, two important advantages of having no automatic campaign leaders. First, because whoever is chosen will be almost entirely unknown to the public, Leave will be huge underdogs in any TV debates plus, like Nicola Sturgeon in the 2015 General Election debates, they will have novelty appeal. Second, Leave can make their selection solely based on their appeal to swing voters.
In the Scottish referendum, Better Together used a similar process, quietly gathering videos of potential prominent “message carriers” and then carefully testing their appeal. Both EU campaigns will want to avoid Better Together’s dilemma when their private polling showed a third of No voters thought Alex Salmond better represented “Scottishness” than Alistair Darling or Gordon Brown.
Politicians win political campaigns
It is often said that the referendum campaigns would be more successful if led by a non-politician – ideally, someone from business or sport with an impeccable record in their own field. The trouble is that most of these people wilt when thrust into the political spotlight. Stronger In’s Sir Stuart Rose has been a case in point: a muddled, rambling speech at the launch (and no questions from the assembled media), forgetting the name of his campaign and idly boasting that Remain will win easily.
In the Scottish referendum, there were similar attempts to co-opt a host of well-known Scots to both campaigns – to little effect. Moreover, the campaigning efforts of the Scottish CBI were so embarrassing that it is surprising anyone has sought to involve that organisation in the upcoming EU campaign.
The brutal truth is that few people from business have ever faced the kind the intense media scrutiny of an election campaign. Recent history is littered with examples, from Tony Hayward at BP to Fred Goodwin at RBS, of businessmen incapable of handling the kind of media pressure most political leaders experience almost daily. The key lesson from Scotland is to use such non-politicians sparingly or with selected audiences – and leave the main battle to those who have the skills required.
Expect the unexpected
Successful campaigns must be able to cope with surprises. In the Scottish referendum, Gordon Brown called for David Cameron to debate Alex Salmond, something Better Together had spent months arguing against. The former Prime Minister then redeemed himself by delivering a passionate speech that galvanised the No campaign at a time when defeat seemed possible. Having a campaign structure in place that allows you to act quickly (while simultaneously sticking to your core themes) to exploit opportunities will be a vital element to success.
Imperfect campaigns are the norm
During the Scottish referendum, campaign problems regularly attracted critical media headlines – fundraisers who couldn’t raise money, campaign heads who couldn’t draft a strategy. One story exemplifies Better Together’s failings: the daily conference call, chaired by Douglas Alexander MP, was supposed to shape activity for the following 24 hours. It was held at 5am but the campaign director was never involved because he only arrived at work after 10am (having typically still been in the office at 3am). Such stories are inevitable and, in part, are a reflection of the intense pressures in election campaigns. There is however another problem: there is a very limited number of talented people available to work on short-term campaigns so occasionally the wrong people end up in the wrong jobs. In Scotland, Better Together had time to shift underperforming team members; in the EU referendum, that option is unlikely to be available.
Try not to forget the finances
In the Scottish referendum, both campaigns significantly overspent their budgets. After the vote, the SNP bailed out the Yes campaign to the tune of £825,000 while Better Together was forced to go back to their (mostly Tory) donors and raise £200,000. To make matters worse, Better Together, as a supposed sign of strength, had asked for a stop on donations one month before the vote. Spending £50,000 on a single advert that was never shown and £27,000 on the overnight results party was a further sign of inadequate financial controls.
The reasons for this are hardly surprising: first, budgeting skills are rarely found in DNA of the kind of politicos that run campaigns (that is why Stephen Gilbert is such an asset to Stronger In). Second, because no one knows precisely what will make the crucial difference in a close vote, saying yes becomes the easy, default option. Eager campaigners and creative agencies are adept at developing new (and costly) ideas that are sold to eager politicians.
Consider the aftermath
No-one involved in any campaign ever wants to think about the aftermath: winning is everything. Victory in the Scottish referendum came with a heavy political price tag: the decimation of unionist parties north of the border at the General Election, 110,000 SNP members and, shortly, another SNP Government in the Scottish Parliament.
In the EU referendum, the aftermath of a vitriolic campaign could be tricky for the Prime Minister, particularly with a tiny Conservative majority. As leader of Stronger In, David Cameron will inevitably be drawn into fierce disagreements with Conservative Ministers; that is the nature of these kinds of campaigns. Finding a way to restrain himself when debating with other Conservatives while simultaneously arguing his case with full force is almost impossible. The outcome might be a rerun of Scotland: even if the Prime Minister wins, the end result is the creation of a newly invigorated eurosceptic force in his own Party.