might make a good headline but his intervention is unlikely to mean Britain votes in his favour. Just look to the French rejection of the European constitution in 2005, the Irish voters vetoing the Lisbon treaty in 2008 and, way back in 1992, the Danes saying “nej” to the Maastricht treaty. Individuals were not responsible for these results, but rather the communication of better arguments and credible fears to the electorate.
Should Britain Stronger in Europe be worried by those referendum results? Not really. They were exceptions. In fact, the vast majority of all referendums on the EU have resulted in victory for those wanting more integration – . On average the percentage supporting the European Union has been over 60%.
Having researched and having advised governments and opposition parties on referendums for the past 20 years, I have narrowed down the art of winning to five lessons:
Lesson one – highlight the dangers
Britain Stronger in must highlight concrete and credible pitfalls of Brexit like the Danish government did in 1972. The Danes ran a campaign called “the price of a no”, in which they compared the prices of selected groceries in the event of a vote to join the EEC (the name of the EU before 1994) with the prices of the same items in the event of a rejection. One poster showed bag of ground coffee and the simple caption: “If you vote yes this will cost 12 kroner, if you vote no it will cost 15 kroner”. The prospect of price increases outside the EEC gave the pro-European government a boost of 10% in the final days of the referendum.
Lesson two – avoid scaremongering
rarely work and often backfire. The Dutch government made the fanciful suggestion in 2005 that a “no” to the European constitution would result in the return of the Third Reich. Without a European constitution to tie the Germans in – so ran the implausible argument – they would once again turn to the National Socialism. This rather fanciful argument saw a clear majority melt away. Voters are not fools and when politicians treat them as such they will punish them by voting no.
Lesson three – don’t cosy up to big business and the wealthy
In 2003, the Swedish elite – such as Volvo’s chairman Per Gyllenhammar and the prominent entrepreneur Birgitta Ed – endorsed the euro. Eurosceptics responded by asking simple questions about their personal finances. This resonated with voters and Swedes voted against joining the euro.
Lesson four – avoid personal attacks
A referendum is about issues, not individuals. Politicians are used to dealing in personal attacks and character assassinations. This might work in elections but it tends not to in referendums.
In 2015, in the referendum on whether to join Europol, the Danish government highlighted the questionable ethics of the far-right Eurosceptic MEP , feeding the media salacious details about the rightwing politician’s abuse of public money. Danish voters did not approve of his antics, but it didn’t affect how they voted. The personal campaign against him backfired and the voters said no.
Lesson five – set the agenda
Winning a referendum is about setting the agenda as much as convincing voters. Britain Stronger in Europe cannot tell people what to think, but it can tell people what to think about. So it should be specific: talk about the economy, jobs, and so-called “bread-and-butter issues”. Appeals to lofty principles such as might exercise law professors and anoraks, but ordinary voters have little time for political philosophy when they enter the ballot box.
Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, that you “campaign in poetry but govern with prose”. Referendums are different. They are won by prose, not poetic musing. If the campaign to remain highlights the concrete and credible fears, by appealing to ordinary voters’ concerns and by making this a clear and simple message, it will win.
David Cameron’s negotiating tactics may not have been impressive last week and his decision to hold a referendum in the first place was perhaps unwise. But if the remain campaign can learn the lessons of previous referendums, the United Kingdom will still be a member of the after 23 June.