2016 has been a year which has challenged the traditional political consensus. Brexit was delivered against all odds – a victory for all those who had campaigned against the undemocratic nature of the European Union, the unfair system of immigration it created whereby people from 27 countries are prioritised over people from the other 169, and the restrictions on policy choices available to British voters at the ballot box that membership of the EU brings with it. That victory, in spite of the ad hominem insults thrown at Leave voters, should teach valuable lessons on how to conduct a campaign in 2017.
The ultimate difference between the Leave campaign and the Remain campaign was twofold: the Leave campaign was positive and optimistic; and the Remain campaign offered very little by way of emotive arguments. The oft-quoted phrase that summed up the referendum (and perhaps 2016 as a whole) was Michael Gove’s quip: ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’. This is not strictly true, but what is true is that people don’t respond well to simply being told they should support a cause because they should – they want to be given an emotive reason why they should back it.
2016 has shown us the need for political campaigns to make an argument that combines emotive and logical reasoning – it isn’t enough to simply assume that people agree with your positions, you have to persuade them to agree with you. Likewise 2016 proved, once and for all, that negative campaigning is ineffective – particularly if people don’t believe what you are telling them. Merely having the support of an ‘expert’ isn’t sufficient to win you an election, and likewise fear and negativity (the weapons of choice of the Remain campaign and Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign) aren’t as impactful as a positive, optimistic message.
The election of Donald Trump also compounded the argument that governments need to do more to prove they are listening to the will of the people. While Brexit vindicates David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on EU membership, as it proves the demand for a referendum was overwhelming more accurately than any opinion poll; Donald Trump is a reflection of an American establishment that has systematically failed to respond to its voters. Barack Obama was elected as a force for change in 2008, and so it was in 2016. Moreover, Trump’s election proved that insulting supporters of your opponents is unlikely to convince them to change their minds.
What does that mean for 2017?
The reactions of many to Brexit and Trump suggests they haven’t learn the primary message of 2016: voters need to be convinced of your position through discussion and debate, however objectively correct you think you may be. Those of us who believe in the value of democracy and tolerance have to work harder than ever to defend them.
2017 will see big electoral chances for Le Pen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands, and Alternative für Deutschland in Germany. Those fighting against them would do well to learn the lessons of 2016: when making the case against a populist demagogue, make it with passion, conviction and logic, and don’t insult those you are seeking to convert.