Britain could leave Europe if comms lessons are not learned

The campaign to keep Britain in Europe needs to take heed of the Scottish referendum and stay positive.

Andrew Wilson: managing partner at Charlotte Street Partners
Andrew Wilson: managing partner at Charlotte Street Partners

With UKIP apparently in the ascendant and David Cameron promising a referendum on Europe, the vast majority of the UK’s businesses and leaders are deeply concerned by both the possibility of a vote to exit Europe and the uncertainty caused in the meantime. But they should be very careful in how they go about voicing those worries. The strategy for the potential European referendum is possibly the most important comms challenge in decades.

All campaigns need discipline and co-ordination. Companies will need to report on risks to their shareholders in an orderly way. But the campaign to keep the UK in Europe needs to go heavily positive first and make the case from the ground up or it risks defeat. That’s the core lesson I draw from the Scottish referendum.

On current polling a swing of roughly three per cent to ‘out’ would win the campaign for exit. When the Scottish referendum kicked off, the ‘Yes’ campaign needed a swing more than three times as large. Through the long campaign the strategy of the ‘No’ side was overwhelmingly and relentlessly negative and top-down.

Institutions and leaders from the US President to the boards of banks, supermarkets and oil companies lined up to tell Scots what a calamity independence would be. The Chancellor threatened to withdraw the currency. The Labour leader Ed Miliband threatened soldiers at border posts. It was unrelenting.

By the end of the campaign the swing in favour of independence was around eight per cent. Not enough to win, and we should remember that the negative campaign won. But that same swing would more than win the day for the ‘Britain out of Europe’ side.

The mood in the country is febrile. People don’t trust big institutions and leaders like they once did. Each and every one has either had its own existential crisis or is about to have it. The sense of remoteness from power and the unfairness of reality is palpable.

Real incomes have fallen for a decade while the top ranks of society continue to live high on the hog. The South East economy has raced ahead while the regions have bumped along. The only income gap bigger than that between the regions and London is the gap within London itself.

This has created a tinderbox politically and there is lightning in the air. If it strikes during a European in/out referendum then the outcome could be explosive.

The European Union needs to re-establish its legitimacy and determine its long-term purpose. The positive case needs to be re-won first, which means focusing on the fundamental good it has brought:

1) Peace across a continent previously racked by bloody conflict for centuries. There is peril in ignoring this truth.

2) Free interchange between people, making travel, trade and job creation much easier.

3) Co-operation between states, raising benefits way beyond the sum of their parts for the welfare and wellbeing of everyone. Unity in the face of global competition that allows us all to stand a chance in a fiercely competitive world.

I’d rather hear from the shop floor of the Nissan car plant in Sunderland during the campaign than from its bosses. People like us, speaking in our voice about the benefits to their families from the European market.

The least likely people to win this campaign are remote bosses of remote institutions threatening doom if we vote to leave another remote and unreformed institution.

There will be a time for a negative check on reality. But if that’s the only story the ‘keep Britain in’ side runs then Nigel Farage will be grinning the day after the vote.

Andrew Wilson is managing partner at Charlotte Street Partners

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