The Lib Dems are right – revoking Article 50 is a winning proposition

phil syrpisThe Lib Dems are right to have promised to revoke Article 50, writes Phil Syrpis (University of Bristol). Revocation would ‘make it stop’ – an appealing proposition for those weary of Brexit and who want to focus on domestic politics. Labour should follow suit.

It now looks as though the UK will be heading towards a pre-Brexit general election. Notwithstanding the damage which Boris Johnson seems to be inflicting on the Conservative party and on the UK’s creaking constitution, opinion polls indicate that he might well win. If his plan really is to establish a narrative for a pre-Brexit general election, in which he could cast himself as the man of the people, sticking up for the UK in the face of the intransigent EU and the remain establishment (as I argued here in July), it may be that – contrary to appearances – all is going well for him.

Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson. Photo: Liberal Democrats via a CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

The political debate has focused on the timing of the general election (and in particular on the benefits for the opposition of forcing Johnson to break his 31 October ‘do or die’ promise), and on the possibility of electoral pacts and/or understandings between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party, and between the various political groupings opposed to Johnson. This post concentrates instead on the policy pledges, or manifesto commitments, which each of the main parties might make in relation to Brexit. I argue that Labour’s current position plays into Johnson’s hands. As the Liberal Democrats have just proposed to do, moving from support for a people’s vote to support for revoking the Article 50 notification might inject much needed dynamism into the remain campaign.

The positions of the main parties

It is safe to assume that Johnson will campaign to ‘get Brexit done’. He will claim that he is able to get a good Brexit deal from the EU. If that fails, he is prepared to leave with no deal. A notable feature of this plan is that his Brexit will remain stubbornly undefined. He will, much as he has done to date, attempt to portray himself as the candidate who will meet the aspirations of both those who want to leave with a deal, and those who want to leave with no deal.

One part of the opposition strategy will involve shooting down the Johnson campaign. That should not prove unduly difficult. There is very little evidence to suggest that he is close to getting the sort of deal he says he wants. There seem to be no negotiations of substance with the EU. There is no indication that he has understood the difficulties inherent in leaving the single market and customs union, while at the same time avoiding a border either in Ireland or across the Irish Sea. The EU’s negotiating position will not shift just because the UK is serious about no deal. One of the most pervasive myths is that we can leave the EU without a deal on October 31, or whenever the next iconic date happens to be, and that it will then all be over. Of course, it won’t be over. It will just be the start. Our trade and other relationships with the EU and the rest of the world will need to be worked out.

The other, more difficult, part of the opposition strategy involves making an alternative policy pitch to the people. As things stand, Labour’s position is not an irrational one. It is, though, rather difficult to explain to the public. If elected, Labour will negotiate its own ‘better’ Brexit deal. It will then put the resulting deal to the people in a people’s vote. At that stage, it is not clear whether it would back its own deal or remain, although many in the party have already indicated that they are likely to favour the latter.

So were Labour to win power, it would ask the EU for a further extension, and spend a considerable amount of time negotiating with the EU and formulating a referendum question to be put to the people.

The contrast with Johnson’s position could hardly be starker. He will present himself as the man who will get it done, and cast Labour as the party of delay and obfuscation, of ‘yet more Brexit’. He will be on the side of the people. Labour will be said to be trying to manufacture a new referendum to frustrate the will of the people and engineer it to deliver the result they want.

A shift to revoke?

It is easy to see how an electoral campaign based on a long delay and a people’s vote might play into Johnson’s hands. Those who are fed up with Brexit, and who want this all to be over, may be enticed by Johnson’s promise to get it done.

That is why Labour should follow the Lib Dems in campaigning not for a people’s vote, but instead for revocation of the Article 50 notice (as I first argued here in December 2018).
It is a message which, in its urgency and decisiveness, more than matches that of Johnson. He will say that he will get it done. The opposition can say that, within days, Brexit will be over.

Revoke has grassroots appeal. Over six million people signed the revoke petition. Polls suggest that over 50% of the people now support remain. It is almost unthinkable that we might be heading towards a general election which will be dominated by Brexit and that we will not be afforded the option to vote to ‘make it stop’ and enable politics to move beyond Brexit.

Let me try to deal with the arguments against revocation. The first, and most common, criticism is that revocation lacks a democratic mandate. If the case for revoke is made in the context of a general election, in which the various parties campaign on the basis of their preferred Brexit outcomes, that criticism loses its force. A general election affords parties the opportunity to set out what they want to achieve. Just as it is now possible for Johnson and others to argue for no deal (a huge jump from the referendum and the Conservative position in the 2017 general election), it is also possible for opposition parties to argue for revoke.

Second, it is said that only a people’s vote can provide finality, that without a second referendum there will be ‘unfinished business’, and that what started with a referendum can only be ended with a referendum. This strand of criticism overstates what a second referendum can achieve. Let us say that there was a people’s vote, in which either Labour’s ‘better Brexit’ or the Withdrawal Agreement was pitted against remain; and that remain won. Is the contention that Brexiters would accept that Brexit had been settled? Even though their preferred version of Brexit was not on the ballot paper? The reality is that any decision to revoke Article 50, whether or not it is preceded by a people’s vote, would be contested. Revocation would bring the Article 50 process to an end. But there is nothing to stop a future government with a new mandate making a new argument for Brexit. Scottish politics shows us that it is difficult, if not impossible, to put an issue like this to bed for a generation.

If there is a pre-Brexit general election, it will be because there is no majority within the existing Parliament for any of the rival substantive outcomes of the Brexit process (leaving with a deal, leaving with no deal, and not leaving at all). A general election provides an opportunity to elect a new Parliament, in which the arithmetic will likely be different, and in which the policy positions of the various parties may also be different. The stakes could not be higher. It is time for Remainers to have the courage of their convictions. They should use the general election to obtain a mandate for revoking the Article 50 notification.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

Phil Syrpis is Professor of EU Law at the University of Bristol Law School.

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Young people and Brexit: the implications for the far-right and Scottish independence

rakib ehsanSince the EU referendum, the narrative of an inter-generational divide has emerged, with the country’s older pro-Leave generation thought to be at odds with a younger, pro-Remain generation. Rakib Ehsan (Henry Jackson Society) investigated these intra-generational differences and suggests that failure to deliver Brexit may provide a boost for far-right organisations, but that a disruptive no-deal Brexit has the potential to inject considerable youthful energy into the Scottish independence movement.

Brexit has dominated mainstream political discourse since the shock referendum result in June 2016. One of the dominant narratives which emerged from the referendum was the inter-generational divide, which is said to pit the pro-Leave older generation against a younger, pro-Remain cohort.

stirling pro-Scottish independence march

Digitally manipulated image from a pro-Scottish independence march in Stirling, March 2018. Photo: Tom Donald via a CC-BY-NC-SA 2-0 licence

It is true that younger people were far more likely to vote to remain in the EU. This has meant that existing research and media coverage has focused on pro-Remain sentiments among young British people. However, there is a notable section of young British people who harbour Eurosceptic feelings – and our collective understanding of their socio-political attitudes is far from developed. Using a nationally representative, pre-referendum (May 2016) survey of 1,351 young British people aged 18-30, I explored differences between young pro-Leave people and their pro-Remain peers.

Figure 1 shows the percentage of the young pro-Leave and pro-Remain subgroups which fell into the following individual categories: being male; belonging to social classes C2DE; holding a negative view of cultural diversity; selecting immigration important issue facing the country; and reporting a primary English identity.

While the young pro-Remain subgroup was almost divided evenly in terms of gender composition (49.9% male; 50.1% female), 64% of the pro-Leave subgroup was male – a gender difference of 28 percentage points. In regard to class, just over 1 in 4 – 25.5% – of the pro-Remain subgroup fell into social classes C2DE. The corresponding figure for their pro-Leave peers was nearly half, at 49.3%.

There was a particularly sharp difference between the two subgroups when it came to their perspectives of the cultural diversity which has come to characterise modern British society. The young people in the survey were asked, “Do you think that having a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures is a positive or negative part of modern Britain?”. While only 6.4% of the pro-Remain subgroup reported a negative view of cultural diversity, this figure rises to 46.7% for their pro-Leave counterparts – a difference of over 40 percentage points.

Young British people who participated in the survey were also questioned on what they felt were the most important issues facing the country: “Which of the following do you think are the most important issues facing the country at this time? Please tick up to three.” Respondents were able to choose from the following policy areas: immigration and asylum; healthcare; economy; housing; Europe; environment; defence and terrorism; education; tax; crime; family life and childcare; pensions; and transport. They were also offered “none of these” and “don’t know” options. Out of the policy issues selected, the largest Leave–Remain gap was on the issue of immigration. Figure 1 shows that while 60.1% of young Leavers selected immigration as an important issue facing the country, only 23.8% of their pro-Remain peers followed suit.

In regard to primary (trans)national self-identification, the young British people surveyed were asked: “Which of the following best describes your identity?” For this part of the report’s analysis, five primary identities were considered: English, British, Scottish, Welsh, and European. Figure 1 shows that 30.9% of the pro-Remain subgroup reported a primary English identity, with the corresponding figure for their pro-Leave peers standing at 46.9%.

Building on the findings over primary identification, Figure 2 shows that the pro-Remain subgroup contained a higher concentration of young people who reported a primary Scottish identity, when compared to the pro-Leave subgroup (7.4% compared with 5.5%). However, the pattern is reversed for those who self-identified as Welsh, where the pro-Leave subgroup contained a larger proportion of young people who did this – in fact, more than double in terms of within-group percentage (7.4% compared with 3.5%).

Unsurprisingly, the pro-Leave subgroup included a far smaller proportion of young people who primarily identified as European when compared to the proportion within the pro-Remain subgroup (2.3% compared with 11.9%).

What the analysis shows is that there is no easy answer to questions over the possible political and social drawbacks associated with Brexit, as I explore further in a recent report for the Henry Jackson Society. Characteristics associated with pro-Leave sentiments among young people – male, lower socio-economic status, anxious over immigration, sceptical of cultural diversity, prevailing expressions of “Englishness” – also overlap with the profile of “target groups” for the recruitment and mobilisation processes of far-right organisations in the UK. Indeed, there is worrying evidence that “Brexit betrayal” rhetoric is being co-opted by far-right nationalist movements. A perceived failure to have delivered Brexit carries the risk of fuelling political disaffection among “at risk” groups traditionally associated with membership of far-right extremist groups.

On the flip side, the majority of Britain’s young people did vote to Remain, with positive views of immigration-induced cultural diversity appearing to be strongly related to pro-EU sentiments. A disruptive Conservative-led Brexit under Prime Minister Boris Johnson could also serve to intensify calls for Scottish independence among young Remainers living north of the border – adding considerable energy to renewed demands for a second referendum on Scotland’s possible separation from the UK. Indeed, a recent poll has shown that more Scottish people would prefer independence to remaining in the Union, with another survey showing that 60% of Scots believe support for Scottish independence would increase if the UK was to leave the EU on a no-deal basis. This is the dilemma that faces unionist politicians who are both pro-Leave (to the extent of supporting a no-deal Brexit) but also wish for Remain-voting Scotland to maintain its place in the UK.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society’s Centre on Social & Political Risk.

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Categories, stereotypes, and political identities: the use of Brexiter and Remainer in online comments

Joanne Meredith (University of Wolverhampton) and Emma Richardson (University of Leicester) examine how the terms Brexiter and Remainer were used by online commenters during and after the referendum. They find that the two are seen as political categories in their own right, and the commenters resisted other, well-defined political identities, such as Conservative or Labour supporters.

Commentary around Brexit highlighted political and social divisions in the United Kingdom in the run-up to the referendum. These divisions continue three years on. While there has been much public focus on the discourse of politicians during this time, we were interested in how members of the public discussed and debated Brexit and how this might impact upon society and politics in the future. We analysed the language and discourses used by commenters in online newspapers as they discussed articles relating to Brexit; focussing on the period from the announcement of the date of the referendum until four months after the result was announced. We examined 2,586 threads of conversation, taken from 34 articles across four different online newspapers. As the £350 million claim was so prominently contested we chose to focus on news items which related to this claim.

Categories and stereotypes

Our specific interest was in the ways in which the terms ‘Brexiter’ and ‘Remainer’ were used, and defined, in those comments. We found, through a discourse analysis of the posts, that work was done by each group to define the other. Brexiters used certain terms, or categories, to ‘define’ the attributes of someone who belonged to the Remainer camp, and vice versa. We found that for both sides, there tended to be a multitude of negative definitions of the opposing side. Brexiters were defined by Remainers as racists, xenophobic, ignorant, uneducated and so on. Remainers, on the other hand, were defined by Brexiters as ‘luvvies’, out of touch with reality, and as scaremongers (echoing the rhetoric of ‘Project Fear’).

Social identity theory discusses this in relation to ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’. When we identify with a particular group, whether it’s a political party, football team or fans of a particular singer, we position ourselves within the in-group, and those who do not identify with that particular group are positioned as the out-group. Social identity theory suggests that those who identify with the in-group aim to present their own group in a positive way, and this can involve defining the out-group in a negative way comparatively. It is important to note that the terms in-group and out-group do not inherently make value judgements about the groups being discussed, but rather relate to how individuals identify with those groups.

We found posters repeatedly using negative terminology to define their out-group, which formed and maintained emerging Brexiter/Remainer stereotypes, with the discourses used prior to the referendum becoming ever more defined by the end of the campaign.

Political party affiliation and Brexit

We also examined the interactions between posters, where one or more people responded to an original post to form a thread. In these threads, we observed individual posters categorising another as belonging to, or affiliating with, a particular political party. We saw posters use categories as ‘typical Leftie’ or ‘obviously a Ukipper’ in their posts.

The use of other political parties or political affiliations, such as left- or right-wing, tended to be resisted quite strongly by those being categorised. Unlike the emerging categories of Brexiter and Remainer, where we found extensive work being done by posters to define these terms, the political spectrum in the UK is well defined. Categories such as leftie or right-wing are treated as inference-rich; ‘a great deal of the knowledge that members of a society have about the society is stored in terms of these categories’.

So why might posters resist being categorised by other affiliations? We argue that the traditional dividing lines in British politics were not deemed by posters as relevant to discussions about Brexit. In other words, in this context, belonging to the well-defined categories of Labour or Conservative supporters was not salient. Instead, the dividing line that mattered was whether they were a Remainer or a Brexiter, and the characteristics that were attributed to other posters related strongly to those categories rather than the ones of traditional political parties. There was one exception to this finding: when people were supporters of Brexit and were aligned with UKIP by other posters, this did not tend to be resisted. In other words, while being a Conservative or Labour affiliate was resisted in discussions around Brexit, UKIP – who had a platform of leaving the EU as their main policy – was seen as a relevant political party to invoke in the discussions.

Social divisions, toxicity and the future

Our research highlighted that, firstly, even in the outset of the referendum campaigns there was a growing social division between Brexiters and Remainers, which led to stereotypes of these groups being established by ordinary people. The language and debate tended to be so toxic and negative, with stereotypes and personal attacks, that we rarely saw any moves towards finding agreement or towards a conciliatory position. This highlighted the problems which would later arise in terms of finding agreement and compromise on the issue of Brexit between supporters of each side.

In terms of trying to heal these divisions, one option may be to try and bring Brexiters and Remainers together in ways that allow them to reduce the stereotypical view they have of each other – known as the contact hypothesis. Another suggestion might be to try and find ways to reduce the extent to which Brexiters and Remainers identify with those particular identities, and instead identify with a larger identity. We see politicians talking about being British and believing in Britain, which posits a larger identity that might be relevant. However, at the present time is appears that the identities of Brexiter and Remainer are still, to a great extent, the more salient in public discourse. However, in the future, such social psychologically informed measures could be used to try and heal social divisions.

In terms of the political landscape, the current strength of the Brexiter and Remainer identities suggests that individuals are trying to find parties which house their Brexit views unequivocally. As such, we may see shifts in the traditional political landscape as traditional ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ ideologies do not map to ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’. We have seen this borne out over the previous year, with new parties forming which have very specific ideologies towards Brexit (Change UK and the Brexit Party). Considering that individuals resisted the use of traditional party categories by pointing out the splits which exist within those parties, it may be that the issue of Brexit continues to cut across party lines for many years.

This post draws on the authors’ published work in the Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology. It represents the views of the authors and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. It first appeared at LSE British Politics and Policy.

Joanne Meredith is Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Wolverhampton.

Emma Richardson is Research Associate in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of Leicester.

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Labour cannot be a party of Remain if it is serious about radical change

Brexit has energised the centrist political forces that want to remain in the EU, but they have little to show for their efforts. Michael Wilkinson (LSE) argues that Labour should avoid flirting with Remainism if it wants to be the party of radical change and defeat Boris Johnson.

The divisions underlying Brexit are deep and complex, and cut across various social and ideological cleavages. They have revealed splits not only between but within the political parties which are meant to mediate differences and contribute to the production of a political will. They reflect regional and generational as much as traditional Left-Right divides. And the Brexit process itself now raises serious constitutional questions about the relationship among judicial, legislative and executive powers, about the constitution’s fitness for purpose, and even about the location of sovereignty itself – bringing to the surface strong and countervailing currents that usually ebb and flow less vigorously underneath.

anti-Brexit march

At the anti-Brexit demonstration in London, 23 June 2018. Photo: David Holt via a CC BY 2.0 licence

With 31 October fast approaching, things are reaching a climax. The appointment of a new Tory Prime Minister who is more willing to adopt an aggressive negotiating position – within his own party, with Parliament, and with the EU itself – has heightened tensions and also reignited the political embers, re-energising those on both sides of the Brexit divide.

Reactions to the PM’s advice to prorogue Parliament in a manner that pushes constitutional boundaries to their limit have produced a great deal of heat. But the light, as yet, remains obscure. This is because we are not nearing the end of the Brexit saga, not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps only the end of the beginning.

To see why, we need to start disentangling the political and constitutional questions, which, due to the peculiarity of the UK’s uncodified constitution, are mixed up in the day-to-day workings of government and in the normal play of party politics itself. This is especially so with Brexit.

So one might, rightly or wrongly, consider Brexit to be a positive constitutional move, or think that, given the referendum outcome, it is now a constitutional change that must be seen through, but at the same time be strongly politically opposed to the Tory regime represented by Boris Johnson. From this position, one might even acknowledge that any negotiation with the EU requires running the risk of no deal, without thinking no deal to be the best outcome or to be a positive outcome in the short-term. Any government that happened to be in the position of negotiating with the EU would have to retain it as a credible threat, or so the Greek crisis may be thought to have revealed. That it happens to be Johnson in the position of negotiating the deal is unfortunate for those ideologically opposed to him, but can be corrected at the next electoral opportunity, or for those who believe in extra-parliamentary activity, on the streets, the workplace and elsewhere.

But to disentangle the constitutional issue of leaving the EU – the kind of question that arises once in a generation – from the vicissitudes of everyday politics is a challenge exacerbated by other factors, which have less to do  with constitutional law than with the layers underneath the constitutional surface: struggles over political unity, institutional power, political objectives and the social fabric..

Since the Brexit vote, certain divisions, and the positions undergirding them, have entrenched and attitudes hardened. At the same time various splinters have formed. There are no longer, if there ever were, two homogenous blocs facing each other across the Brexit divide. There are however two figures – caricatures perhaps – that can be sketched in a way that may help to discern certain trends. If the Brexit referendum gave some voice to those previously disenchanted with centrist politics – marginalised by neoliberal economics, years of austerity under the Conservative-Liberal coalition, and an establishment that had offered various shades of the same political hue – Remainism has since presented a countervailing reactionary force. It has awakened certain parts of the British (and European) bourgeoisie that were previously passive, their social and economic capital more threatened by the prospect of the Brexit vote than the austerity that preceded it. These two groups are new to the political landscape, making politics very hard to predict.

What we can say for sure is that there has been a high level of volatility in the political representation of the bloc of Brexit voters as a mass – and especially for those who voted Brexit in the hope that it would signal a desire for rupture with the status quo. In the 2017 general election, both major parties campaigned on a promise to deliver the referendum result, committing to leave the EU. As a consequence UKIP, after its extraordinary advance in the 2015 general election, was nearly eviscerated just two years later, with politics reverting back to a struggle between Left and Right in a way that had not been witnessed for several decades. But in the recent European Parliament elections, in the wake of the established parties’ apparent unwillingness or inability to agree to any Brexit deal and refusal to countenance a no-deal scenario – despite that being the logical implication of having approved the triggering of Article 50 in March 2017 – centrism returned with a bang, the newly formed Brexit Party – like Italy’s 5 Star containing elements across the political spectrum – making significant inroads, along with the Liberal Democrats as the unequivocal party of Remain.

Yet although many centrist Remainers have significant social (as well as real) capital and significant representation in the liberal media and the academy, they have not as yet translated this power into concrete political advances. In fact they have suffered a series of setbacks and embarrassments. In 2017, the Lib Dems flatlined on an unambiguously Remain platform. The new centrist party Change UK made more name changes than political headway. For this group more broadly, which includes – along with Conservatives and Lib Dems – many within the Labour party, failure to topple Jeremy Corbyn is perhaps the most conspicuous of all, although they have succeeded in pushing the party to adopt a more aggressively Remainist position, voiced prominently by the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer.

The Remainists’ response to Johnson’s premiership appears to be to raise the rhetorical stakes but diminish the practical ones, as if the appropriate response to a ‘coup’ is to launch a ‘petition’ or to look to the establishment to sort this mess out: the courts, the Queen, the European Commission or Hugh Grant. Some lament that if only we had a written constitution, these political crises would be avoided, apparently learning little from recent episodes in constitutional democracies from the US to Italy. Others suggest that until a few weeks ago the UK was legitimately lecturing other folk on how to run a constitutional democracy, and bemoan the loss of global influence Brexit would bring. Even some Left Remainers place their Remainism so far above their politics that they refuse to agitate against Johnson with those who advocate ‘Lexit’ (a left-wing exit from the EU).

If the opposition to Johnson frames the current struggle as a battle on the terrain of the constitutional question of Brexit, rather the substantive issues of left-right politics and policy, it may well play into Johnson’s hands and enable him, perversely, to fight on a populist or anti-establishment platform, one that appears to be having considerable success in drawing in voters. This is exacerbated by a curious and troubling political void – not only here but in the rest of Europe too: the fact that the Left, with some notable exceptions, almost entirely vacated the terrain of meaningful Euroscepticism. The third of Labour voters who voted Leave in 2016 would be effectively disenfranchised. Indeed not only those who voted Leave but those who voted Remain or didn’t vote at all, but who consider it imperative to respect the outcome of the Referendum, would be jettisoned, with only the Brexit party offering an obvious refuge.

If the absence of Left leadership on the Leave side was somewhat excusable prior to 2016, considered too unlikely to materialise to warrant serious attention, it has now had nearly three years to mature – not on a speculative terrain, but on a terrain primed by the electorate against political and economic elites, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a rupture from the status quo. Even the self-styled revolutionary Left appear unable to grasp this, lazily dismissing what is unarguably a democratic case as necessarily retrograde and ‘nationalist’.

Instead, the strategy on the much of the Left appears, again, to be essentially negative, to present Johnson as dangerous primarily because he is intent on driving through a no-deal Brexit. But Johnson is not committed to a no-deal Brexit, or perhaps to any kind of Brexit. Johnson, probably committed only to himself and to political power, is willing to risk a no-deal Brexit and certainly wants to be seen to be willing to risk no deal – both for party political reasons and (as he may see it) to improve his bargaining position with the EU. But there is little doubt that a soft or even hard Right Conservative political agenda could be pursued from within the EU. Even a cursory glance at the political landscape across Europe confirms this. And the prorogation of Parliament may actually decrease the chance of a no-deal Brexit, not least since it increases pressure to act with urgency.

What may have changed politically is Johnson’s calculation that he can also, or may effectively be forced to, risk an election – a gamble that effectively sunk his predecessor Theresa May.

If it was no coincidence that Johnson’s advice to prorogue was officially made soon after Labour put a motion of no confidence on the backburner, reaching out to those crying ‘Coup’ but suggesting installing Ken Clarke as PM, its strategic implications were unclear. Some commentators perceived it as a sign of weakness from Johnson. Others as a trap to lure the opposition. But is the trap sprung by pressing for an immediate election or avoiding one?

The logical response is that it would depend on the result. But this knowledge is a luxury politics must do without; and in the current moment predictions are difficult. What will matter for now is whether the message from the opposition, on the streets and elsewhere, is unequivocally about getting rid of Johnson, and implementing a radical political and economic programme, or whether it is boxed into manoeuvring for a fight to stop Brexit.

If there is a trap, it surely lies there. It would see the Labour party embrace Remain, or join a cross-party alliance of Remainists, effectively in defence of the established political system. It would write off half the electorate at a stroke and in the longer term write itself off as a party that presented any real political and constitutional alternative to the status quo. Is that the end of the beginning?

It would be an error to think that Brexit can simply be reversed without serious political cost. But it would also be an error to think that a general election will resolve the deeper constitutional issues underlying Brexit. Although this is true to the extent that the Brexit vote reflected a deeper economic malaise that requires serious redress, some of which has little to do with EU membership, it will not dispel the need to address the basic material constitutional questions of democracy and sovereignty that underpin the current drama. Only then will we be nearing the beginning of the end.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

Michael Wilkinson is an Associate Professor of Law at LSE.

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Brexit behaviourally: which do you think is the bigger figure – £350m a week or £4,300 per household per year?

tessa buchananThe Leave campaign’s ‘£350m a week’ figure cut through to voters in the 2016 referendum, while the Treasury’s ‘£4,300 per household per year’ didn’t. Was the relationship between the two figures intuitively self-evident? One is six times bigger than the other. Tessa Buchanan (University College London) looks at some of the behavioural lessons that can be learned from the campaign.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who picked up the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002, describes himself rather charmingly as “mediocre in math”. It’s fair to say that this is in comparison to university classmates who went on to become world-class mathematicians. However, this all-too-human admission underlines a wider psychological point.

As Kahneman wrote in his 2011 book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, while many people do simple calculations (e.g. 2 + 2) in their head using their automatic ‘System 1’ processes, they shy away from complicated sums (e.g. 17 x 24) that require them to engage the more effortful ‘System 2’ style of thinking. And if people are indeed reluctant to do the maths, then this has important implications for communicators, including those who worked on the 2016 EU referendum.

For example, if you were asked: “Thinking about the UK as a whole, which of these figures do you think is bigger: £350m a week or £4,300 per household per year?” what would your immediate answer be?

Sources: Vote Leave campaign 2016/ Stronger In, citing HM Treasury, 2016

This question was posed as part of a wider piece of research I carried out in September 2017, findings from which were published this June in Mind & Society. Given that pollsters, journalists and academics alike were surprised by the results of the referendum, I wanted to explore what behavioural lessons could be learned from the campaign – not on the basis that behavioural science could fully explain the result, but rather on the assumption that in a close contest, even marginal gains could make a difference.

Over 450 Leave voters took part in a survey designed to test the extent to which individual elements of the MINDSPACE framework (2010) had been at play. This mnemonic was developed by academics including LSE professor Paul Dolan and founder members of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, then working at the Institute for Government, to raise awareness among civil servants of “nine of the most robust (non-coercive) influences on our behaviour”.

“I”, in this instance, represents “Incentives”. As described by Dolan et al.:

“Our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses.”

Loss aversion was an early discovery by Kahneman and his research partner Amos Tversky. They established that people care twice as much about potential losses as gains. In politics, this can be linked to nostalgia (consider the sense of loss in the phrase ‘Make America Great Again’). Certainly, it was deployed by both sides in the referendum campaign. Dominic Cummings (portrayed by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2019 Channel 4 drama ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War’) was the campaign director of the official Vote Leave campaign, and is now a senior advisor to the Prime Minister. In a 2017 blogpost, he said that he amended his initial slogan of ‘Take Control’ to ‘Take Back Control’ as: “‘back’ plays into a strong evolved instinct – we hate losing things, especially control”.

In my study, I asked participants: “In your opinion, which of these slogans worked best?” My expectation was that twice as many would prefer the longer version. In fact, four times as many opted for “Take Back Control” over “Take Control” (67% vs. 16%).

One factor may be that, according to a 2016 British Election Study report, control was a particular issue for Leave voters. Those with an ‘external locus of control’ (who felt they had little control over what happened in their lives) were “much more likely” to vote Leave than those with an ‘internal locus of control’, it said.

Loss-framing was also used to present two of the most important economic arguments used in the campaign: the £350m which the Leave campaign said was being sent to the EU every week, and the £4,300 per household per year which HM Treasury said UK households stood to lose if voters opted for Leave (albeit after 15 years in one of three potential scenarios).

The figure of £350m a week was announced relatively early in the campaign and has since become indelibly associated with the UK’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Research published by Bobby Duffy in autumn 2018 suggested that 42% of the UK public still believe it to be true, despite criticism from the UK Statistics Authority that it was a “clear misuse of official statistics”. And views are split. One in five Remain supporters believe the figure, compared with two-thirds of Leave supporters.

The Treasury figure was linked to George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. Gary Gibbon, political editor of Channel 4 News, describes in his 2016 book ‘Breaking Point’ how he was summoned to HM Treasury for the announcement of their figure. “Fingers in ears, the government fired off its great gun and waited for reaction,” he wrote. “Then they waited some more. And then a bit longer still.” This was in contrast to the Leave campaign’s £350m a week, which Gibbon said “got through to people”.

Why did the Treasury’s figure fall flat? Geoffrey Evans and Anand Menon, in Brexit and British Politics (2017) argued that it had “spurious specificity”, being too precise for what was essentially a forecast. But was the relationship between the figures intuitively self-evident? Putting to one side questions about credibility and any time preference effects, I asked participants to compare the two figures at face value in the present time. Given that there were 27m UK households in 2016 (ONS), the question can be expressed mathematically as follows:

Is £350m × 52 weeks > £4,300 × 27m households?

The left-hand side of the equation amounts to £18.2bn a year, while the right-hand side amounts to £116.1bn a year – a figure six times larger.

When I asked participants in this study if they remembered these figures, £350m a week was recalled by ten times more people (72% vs. 7%). This was unsurprising as it was used prominently and spent longer in the public eye. I then asked participants: “Thinking about the UK as a whole, which of these figures do you think is bigger: £350m a week or £4,300 per household per year?” Only a third (35%) gave the correct answer, as against 39% who thought the Leave figure was greater and 26% who didn’t know.

Finally, I gave the participants the information needed to perform the calculation (the number of UK households) and asked them to choose which of four graphs showed the figures in the correct proportions. The correct graph was the least popular choice, picked by only 15%. The majority (39% + 18% = 57%) chose options showing
£350m a week as the larger figure.

Fig. 1 £350m a week vs. £4,300 per household per year

“If there are 27m households in the UK, which option do you think shows £350m a week (in red) versus £4,300 per household per year (in blue) in the correct proportions?”

It is well known in psychology that many humans find the relationship between smaller numbers easier to grasp intuitively than that between larger figures. For this reason, it is commonly held as best practice in government communications to do as the Treasury did, and reduce big numbers to more human-sized amounts.

In this instance, the folk wisdom failed, and this was not the only surprising finding that emerged from my research. Looking at the other elements of MINDSPACE, as a messenger, an anonymous “local businessman” was seen as more trustworthy on every issue tested than a cabinet secretary; the study threw up clues as to why the status quo bias, seen as the default by many, didn’t prevail; and by deploying affect and other behavioural insights in a narrative, I found that Leave voters’ views on immigration were not necessarily fixed.

However, the main message for communicators is that even experts can benefit from seeking out evidence on which to base their decisions. It’s good advice, as the Behavioural Insights Team suggests, to ‘Test, Learn, Adapt’; and to make it easy for people to understand your message. And it’s clearly rash to assume that voters will do the maths for themselves. After all, as Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler say in ‘Nudge’ (2008), when it comes to politics: “voters… seem to rely primarily on their Automatic System.”

References

Daniel Kahneman’s self-penned biography is published on the Nobel Prize website.

MINDSPACE (2010) was produced by the Cabinet Office and the Institute for Government and co-authored by Paul Dolan, Michael Hallsworth, David Halpern, Dominic King and Ivo Vlaev.

Thanks to Dr Shabnam Mousavi, Dr Severine Toussaert, Dr Lee de-Wit, Dr Alan Renwick and Dr Matteo Galizzi for their advice and support.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. It draws on an article published in the June 2019 edition of Mind & Society (Tessa Buchanan, 2019. “Brexit behaviourally: lessons learned from the 2016 referendum,” Mind & Society: Cognitive Studies in Economics and Social Sciences, Springer; Fondazione Rosselli, vol. 18(1), pages 13-31, June.)

Tessa Buchanan (@UCLTessa) is a doctoral student at University College London. She studied for a master’s degree in Behavioural Science at LSE.

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