The odds of a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU are now at higher than 40% in the betting markets – close to a coin toss. It’s time for all sides to think seriously about how to engage the public, building on lessons from the first referendum in 2016.
But the reaction to a video by the actor Stephen Fry suggests Remain supporters haven’t learned enough. The video, entitled “Brexit: Facts versus Fear”, was described as “perfect” by some parts of the media – but that’s only true if the aim was to congratulate people who already agreed with it and do not want the UK to leave the EU.
The video provides an excellent outline of some of the key facts, for example, how immigrants pay more into public finances than they take out and how they support the NHS through taxes and as a vital part of the workforce.
And being clear about these facts is important, because the public are often very wrong on them, as a recent study I led showed. Only 29% of the public think immigrants bring more into public finances than they take out. Four in ten incorrectly think EU immigrants have reduced the quality of NHS services, which increases to over half of Leave supporters.
But does this simple mythbusting approach work to change minds? The evidence suggests it doesn’t, because as I’ve argued it misses a large part of the point: that our misperceptions are often more emotional than rational.
You can’t separate facts from emotion
One of the myths the video debunks, with a hint of a snigger, illustrates this. The EU has not really banned bendy bananas, at least not in the way that Conservative MP Boris Johnson suggested during the 2016 referendum campaign. And most of the public knew that: only a quarter believed it just before the referendum.
But the absurdity was the point, not a flaw. In interviews after he brought it up, Johnson said: “How many directives do you think there are from the EU on bananas? There are four. Do we need them?”
Johnson was trying to link to a broader concern – Britain’s sovereignty. It was meant to trigger the suspicion that if the EU is meddling in the UK’s high-potassium fruits, what else are they mucking about with? Of course, there is significant misdirection here, as these regulations would exist in some form whether the UK is in the EU or not.
But it leads to the broader point – that it’s largely futile to try to separate facts from emotion, or to separate the message from how the recipient hears it.
It’s true, for example, that at a macro level, immigration adds more to the economy than it takes out. But people don’t see that national impact, particularly in an age of spending cuts and wage stagnation.
People live in the micro, in their own communities, where they see competition for local jobs and more people waiting in their doctor’s surgery. When living standards for many have decoupled from national growth, threats to future levels of GDP mean little.
More than that, the framing in Fry’s video ignores the wider concerns people had about the speed of change in their communities, beyond the economic and fiscal impacts.
The clear implication is “you only voted to leave because you were duped”, and therefore your own perceptions of your experience are worth little. This breaks many of the key tenets of communicating in a way to convince others, which are mainly built on starting from where people are.
When talking to a divided public about Brexit, it would be more effective for Remain supporters to begin communications with an understanding that the economy isn’t working for many people, and that this has led to understandable anger. Then recognise that there are clearly pros and cons to leaving, which made it such a difficult decision to come to as a nation, and helps explain why it was such a close vote.
Next, a new Remain campaign should highlight that now we know more about how difficult Brexit is going to be, and that previous information was misleading, there should be another chance to think again. And it’s at that point a better understanding of the actual facts can help.
Instead Fry’s video repeats some the same mistakes from the 2016 referendum, no doubt partly driven by a justified frustration at how badly the truth was mangled by some Leave campaigners.
But we’re kidding ourselves if we think a second referendum will be any more fact-based or any less emotional than the first. If anything, feelings will be running higher and facts will be more twisted, and that makes the outcome even less predictable. Campaigners need to make the most of every opportunity, not waste them.