The EU referendum was a disaster. At a time where the public’s disenfranchisement with politics is continuing to rise, the last thing we want to hear from both sides of the debate is fear mongering and arguing which drifts away from the facts. Granted, with either result, there is a degree of uncertainty – be it whether we achieve reform, or achieve a better trade deal – but there are still lessons to be learnt from one of the messiest referendums in British politics. The main thing being that fear in political debates will get us nowhere.
Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign proved this all too well. It drifted away from his own policies and instead targeted Sadiq Khan’s background to stir up fear (one of the most controversial moments of his campaign being a column he wrote for the Daily Mail).
Now, both sides of the EU referendum debate have used fear tactics in an attempt to win over members of the public. However, there is a slight difference in their methods. Throughout Britain Stronger In Europe‘s campaign, the fear has always been around the loss of jobs and the £4,300 sum drawn up by the Treasury. Yet, this was the side of the argument labelled ‘Project Fear’, not the ‘leave’ campaign, which made a poor choice to make their final argument about immigration.
Whilst the only extreme comment made by David Cameron during the ‘remain’ campaign was about a possible outbreak of World War Three, Vote Leave’s referendum broadcast was shocking – claiming that the EU’s freedom of movement will ‘destroy’ the NHS (something UKIP, not Tory MPs, would say) through the use of graphics which make it sound like it’s the apocalypse. It was divisive, random and did not summarise the whole of Vote Leave’s campaign – unlike the ‘remain’ campaign, which managed to focus on a variety of points based on referenced facts. Throughout the referendum period, Vote Leave’s videos and leaflets have been full of opinions, not evidence. If we had the facts, the public interest in the referendum would have increased and it would stop invalid and hurtful opinions from being aired.
Soon after Vote Leave’s video was broadcast on national television, the campaign became defined by this fear tactic surrounding immigration. ‘Project Fear’ shifted from the remain camp to the leavers. Now, with the result announced and the referendum put to bed, we must look back at the failings of the referendum as well as looking ahead at Britain’s future.
Fear irritates the public. Not only does it create the ‘us and them’ dynamic which society has come to despise, but it’s almost patronising too. Both Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign and the EU referendum revolved around targeting the opposing view or candidate. Granted, this vote had to involve a lot of predictions and estimates (we didn’t know what the future holds either way), but that only leads to exaggeration, division and manipulative tactics.
Whilst bad news is what sells newspapers, negative politics is what has switched off members of the public from voting and getting involved in political debate. Voters have always been selfish with their votes and want to hear how a policy will positively affect them. At the end of the day, it’s a positive attitude in politics which can win back the public’s trust and lead to a hearty debate.
We may have voted to leave the European Union, and some may struggle to be positive about this, but having hope will be the first step to healing a fractured society.