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7 December 2016

Reading the ruins: lessons learned from the aftermath of a political earthquake

Written by: Ed Williams, Chief Executive Officer, Vice Chairman Europe at Edelman

Brexit, Government Affairs

Ed Williams, CEO, Edelman UK & Ireland recently spoke at Goldsmiths University on how the Leave campaign won the EU referendum. Here, he explores how levels of public trust, growing divisions in society, historical attitudes to Europe and the tactics employed by the Leave campaign resulted in a win for Vote Leave.

Every so often, the world seems to turn upside down. Or at least on its side.

Sometimes it happens just through a millimeter movement in the political tectonic plates, creating enormous forces without apparent explanation. Other times, those forces are magnified by human intervention.

Brexit is, in my view, an example of the latter.

First let me make a confession. I am one of the 48% who voted to remain in the EU (big surprise, right!).

I felt the economic, security and social case were stronger than the arguments mounted by those who wanted us to leave. But today’s case study isn’t about re-running the referendum. We must accept that the Leave camp won.

So, please put aside what you personally feel about the result. Instead, let’s focus on how the campaign was won. How Brexiteers defied the pollsters; political commentators; and the “experts”, to win a majority.

Let’s go back to February 2016. This felt like a vote that was Remain’s to lose.

All roads pointed to victory, even if in the darkest hours of the night, there was still a sense that this was a reckless spin of the roulette wheel.

Polling data was positive.

Expert opinion sat mostly in one camp.

The agitators looked like fringe head-bangers.

But, most importantly, we sought comfort in the long-standing norms of political science, which meant victory (while not a shoo-in), was in all probability, likely.

Let’s first look at those accepted wisdoms of political science that offered what turned out to be false reassurances in the months before the vote.

Number One. “The economy, stupid”. The phrase coined by James Carville during Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential race. This phrase underlined a truism of political behaviour – the power of the pocket book in the polling booth.

The theory goes that we will cast a vote based on the outcome that will benefit us most financially. Even in the most emotionally driven campaign, out of the fog comes people’s finances, which they consistently put first.

The problem with this theory – it completely ignores behavioural economics and replaces it with classical economics – and ‘rational man’ logic.

But nevertheless, the pocketbook argument for remaining in Europe looked like a slam-dunk.

The experts backed this up:

  • OECD figures echoed by the Treasury said GDP would be 3 per cent lower within four years of leaving the EU
  • By 2020, UK households would be worse off by an average of £2,200 a year
  • Government deficit would balloon by an extra £17bn a year
  • The IMF said leaving would result in a “negative and substantial” hit to the economy, “permanently lower incomes”

None of this sounded great…

Read the full case study in the publication below.

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