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Seven steps to winning a referendum

UK & Europe

Seven steps to winning a referendum

There are lessons to be learned from the Scottish referendum of 2014, such as remaining positive and courting younger voters with social media.

[Freddie Phillips/Flickr]

Nicholas Whyte takes a journey back in time to previous referendums in order to consider whether the UK and EU can learn anything from the lessons of the past.

Nicholas Whyte is a director at APCO Worldwide’s Brussels office, and a Visiting Professor at Ulster to the Faculty of Social Sciences University.

Now that we know the rough outline of the substance of the proposed deal between the UK and the EU, it might be wise to step back and consider what lessons the UK campaigns for this year’s referendum can learn from similar votes, both in the UK and elsewhere.  As I see it, there are seven broad lessons that those campaigning for Britain to either stay in or leave the European Union should bear in mind. 

Lesson 1: A broad coalition matters

In both previous UK-wide referendums (in 1975 on whether to stay in the European Community and in 2011 on whether to adopt the Alternative Vote system) voters opted for the status quo.  It is striking that in both cases, the larger part of the main party of government, and a significant part of the main party of opposition, were on the winning side.  “Yes” in 1975 and “No” in 2011 were the choices of a broad coalition from the most important parts of the political establishment; their opponents were more marginal figures.

Lesson 2: Don’t take anything for granted, including the polls

Moving across the Celtic Sea, Ireland is unique in the EU in putting every new Treaty to a referendum – there have been nine such votes so far.  The “No” votes in the Irish referendums on both the Nice Treaty in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 demonstrated that a cross-party consensus between the government and opposition leaders is not always sufficient.  In both these referendums, the polls largely predicted a “Yes” vote, but the Irish people ended up voting “No” both times. 

Lesson 3: Second chances are rare

These two negative Irish votes, and also Denmark’s (very narrow) rejection of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, were all subsequently overturned at second referendums, after further negotiations with the EU. Similarly, some believe that a “No” vote from the UK would result in better terms being offered by the EU.

But these three cases were exceptional, in all of them the first result was close, the issues needing resolution were easily identified and all other EU member states had an interest in seeing a multilateral process succeed. These circumstances are unlikely to be replicated around the UK vote. More pertinent, perhaps, is the example of the referendum on the Annan Plan to reunify Cyprus in April 2004. Voters believed that by voting “No” they would get a better offer. Greek Cypriots voted “No” by three to one; eleven years on, they are still waiting for that better offer to come. 

Lesson 4: Don’t get hung up on the detail

In the Cyprus referendum, voters were asked to ratify a 170-page set of treaties with 9,000 pages of dependent draft legislation, which had been negotiated into its final form less than a month before the vote. The “Yes” campaign therefore had a moving target, and could barely be sure what they were asking voters to endorse.

The lesson for the UK is that pro-EU campaigners cannot afford to “wait and see” what concessions the government comes back with from its negotiations with EU partners. The argument will likely be won or lost on the big picture, not on the detail. If the pro-EU campaign finds itself compelled to enlarge upon particular elements of the deal rather than the question as a whole, that is a bad sign; if you’re explaining, you’re already losing.

Lesson 5: Stay positive

The “Better Together” campaign opposing Scottish independence was widely felt to have won the vote but lost the argument, by concentrating on fear and uncertainty rather than putting forward a positive vision for Scotland’s future.  Scottish pro-independence campaigners successfully portrayed the restoration of an independence which had been given up in 1707 as a step forward.

In Ireland, the 2015 campaign for legalising same-sex marriage focused on the tangible benefits for families and for all of society of a reform which directly affected only a few. The “no” side unsuccessfully tried to play on uncertainty and fear of change.

Lesson 6: Use social media

Opinion among campaigners is divided about how much social media really matters in campaigning.  Few, however, would argue that it does not matter at all. Cyberspace has been a crucial venue for mobilising and encouraging supporters for many years. But surveys now show that an increasing number of voters rely on Facebook and Twitter, and no other sources, for news and information about politics. Nobody can win without establishing at least a bridgehead on the online battlefront.

Lesson 7: develop your ground game

Traditional door-to-door campaigning still matters as well – if anything, personal contact with a campaigner, in an increasingly impersonal world, can often be the decisive factor on how a voter chooses to vote.  In Scotland, the “Yes” campaign “delivered more leaflets, put up more posters, set up more stalls and knocked on more doors”.

In Ireland, the equal marriage “Yes” campaign brought together a wide range of civil society organisations into a broad-based coalition that was immensely successful in getting voters to the polls. By contrast, the UK pro-Alternative Vote campaign in 2011 never got its ground campaign together. 

The difference between winning and losing the coming referendum on the UK’s relationship with the EU will turn on these questions.  Who has the broader coalition? Who is better prepared for unwelcome polling news? Who can more convincingly frame the consequences of a “No” vote? Who can keep the argument broad? Who is perceived to be more positive? Who is more convincing online? And, perhaps most of all, who is better at mobilising volunteers to take their argument to the voters? We have an interesting few months ahead.