Why 'leave' is doing itself no PR favours in aftermath of Jo Cox's death

PRWeek EU Referendum Panel: The 'leave' campaign risks turning off moderate voters with its comments on Jo Cox's murder and UKIP's controversial poster, despite Boris Johnson's efforts, writes Zoe Gardner, a charity comms officer and PRWeek 30 Under 30 entrant for 2016.

The major event affecting the past week’s referendum debate was the murder of Jo Cox MP. As a passionate defender of refugee rights, tolerance and diversity, as well as the 'remain' campaign, many have expressed support for Cox’s politics with the words of her first Commons speech, where she claimed we have "far more in common than what divides us".

Brexiteers sneering at what they call the "politicisation" of her death in this way are doing themselves no PR favours: they look out of touch with the country’s grief, more interested in defending their agenda than mourning a young mother and political activist. Stories, including one in the Daily Mail of Neo-Nazi, swastika-tattooed pro-Brexit campaigners belittling her death, will harm Brexit, which needs to distance itself from extreme right anti-migrant sentiment to win mainstream votes.

The controversial UKIP poster unveiled on Friday showing refugees at the Slovenian border was also a miscalculation. It is unsurprising that the mainstream Vote Leave leaders quickly tried to distance themselves from it. Not only is the weaponisation of refugees fleeing war and persecution entirely inappropriate for either side of the campaign – our responsibilities to refugees stem from international law and are not affected by our EU membership – but extreme xenophobic messaging is likely to only appeal to a minority.

The 'leave' campaign risks turning off moderate voters, who are still concerned about immigration, with this kind of blunt and frankly racist instrument.

Boris Johnson did make an attempt to row back against the image of Brexit as a xenophobic, anti-immigrant campaign, by calling for an amnesty for undocumented migrants who have been living in the UK for 12 years or more at a 'leave' rally on Sunday. Johnson has repeatedly and skilfully reached out away from the xenophobic vote, beyond the middle ground to more left-wing voters, realising that 'leave' will need some of their support. However, he has also espoused and then later rejected an amnesty when politically expedient in the past. At any rate, his suggestion on Sunday drew boos from the Brexit crowd.

Zoe Gardner is a comms officer at Asylum Aid, a charity that she says "remains neutral in the referendum debate, but advocates continued respect for the principle of refugee protection in either a leave or remain scenario". She tweets her personal views on Twitter, @ZoeJardiniere

Read Gardner's profile in the PRWeek 30 Under 30 2016 here

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