Making social science accessible

15 Dec 2016

Politics and Society


In his prescient book The Revolt of the Elites, American commentator Christopher Lasch lamented how “the elites who define the issues have lost touch with the people”. This was certainly true for the Brexit referendum campaign. The first analyses of the Brexit referendum suggest the campaign relied less on focus groups than in previous contests. Neither Nigel Farage’s infamous ‘breaking point’ poster nor the HM Treasury document regarding the economic consequences of Brexit were tested in focus groups. Instead the referendum was won by political instinct, which ‘leave’ was better at reading than ‘remain’.

The Remain campaign always believed the economic arguments were key to winning the Brexit vote, though this was an assumption rather than something gauged from focus groups. Given the centrality of the economic arguments in the campaign, it was not surprising that George Osborne and David Cameron published a report setting out the economic benefits of EU membership.

In a report with the title HM Treasury analysis: the long-term economic impact of EU membership and the alternatives (CM9250), the government concluded that “GDP would be 6.2% lower, families would be £4,300 worse off and our tax receipts would face an annual £36 billion black hole”, in the event of a vote to leave.

These claims did not convince voters, and leading campaigners now regret this decision. “Publishing the Treasury document was a mistake”, says Lord (Andrew) Cooper, the Prime Minister’s pollster. It is a general assumption that modern election and referendum campaigns are slick and professional operations where all statements and messages are tested in focus groups and through thorough polling. Focus groups are small groups of representative citizens, who discuss and explain what they feel about political issues. The focus group was pioneered by New Labour in Britain and Bill Clinton’s campaign in America in the 1990s.

Since then the testing of messages in small groups has been a characteristic feature in practically all election and referendum campaigns. The verdict of the focus group participants helped hone the message and provided clues to the voters’ true feelings in a way that mass surveys could not. This was not the case in the referendum campaign. “The decision to publish the Treasury document was not tested in a focus group” prior to the publication admits Lord Cooper. “Subsequently, when we asked voters, they found the claim astounding and many said that they had never received any cheque from the EU. The claim seemed incredulous”. The Conservative peer was interviewed for a longer research paper.

While the Remain campaign conducted several polls in the course of the campaign, many of these asked the wrong questions. For example, the Remain camp’s pollsters tested whether obese people were more likely to vote ‘leave’ (they were in over 80 per cent of the cases) and also found that those in poor health were more Eurosceptic (with a similar percentage). Yet, despite having resources to test the economic claims, the key economic document setting out the Government’s economic case had not been pre-tested. Superficially, it seems that the remain camp lacked direction and an overall strategy.

It seems that the ‘Remain’ campaign was reluctant to spend the time and resources required to analyse and hone a messages of focus groups. There are some indications the remain campaign was fighting the wrong kind of battle. Early in the campaign, the Wall Street Journal reported that ‘remain’ had hired Barack Obama’s much admired Adviser Jim Messina.

Unlike earlier generations of pollsters, Messina favours an internet based strategy based more on on-line polling than on face-to-face focus group. This more high-tech focus might explain why ‘remain’ was able to attract younger voters. But it is equally evident that this approach failed to reach – and perhaps even alienated – older voters; the demographic that was most likely to vote.

The Leave side was similarly reluctant to use state-of-the art political communications tools. Leave.EU – the organisation backed by Nigel Farage – had hired the American political consultant Gerry Gunster. Interviewed for UK in a Changing Europe research paper, Mr Gunster paints a similar picture of the ‘Leave side’. Even key decisions were not tested in focus groups, not even the now infamous poster depicting refugees and the caption ‘breaking point’. “No [the poster with the refugees] was not tested in focus groups. It was a spur of the moment decision taken by Nigel himself. The decision was made in a vacuum”, says Gunster. “We did not conduct focus groups but there was lots of quantification”.

The American pollster says a conscious decision was made to “run a people’s campaign”. Not even the slogan “I want my country back was based on focus groups. We knew instinctively what would work”. While ‘remain’ was fighting an almost post-modern campaign based on social-media, the remain side was running a rather pre-modern, dare I say, 1950s like campaign. This arguably endeared them to their target demographic. With the conviction that their messages, respectively, ‘take back control’ (Vote Leave’s slogan) and ‘I want my country back’ (’s slogan) worked the key was to communicate this tirelessly. There was little need for focus group honing.

Over the past 20 years many have lamented the increased use of professional consultants, spin doctors, political communications and above all focus groups. Many have decried the tendency to sell political messages like we sell washing powder or perfume. The Brexit referendum campaign suggests that even professionals are relying less on these dark arts than previously.

The Brexit referendum campaign was characterised by a chasm between the experts and the urban cosmopolitan elite and those whom Nigel Farage called “good people, honest people, decent people”. For better of for worse, it seems that the Brexiteers’ were more attuned to the views of the majority of the voters.

This view was conceded by Lord Cooper, “ten days out we considered making a vow like the one in Scotland in 2014 but we abandoned the idea. [Polling showed] we couldn’t say anything that was remotely close to what the people wanted”.

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University and author of Referendums and Ethnic Conflict (UPenn 2014) and Referendums Around the World (Palgrave 2013)


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