I have in recent days found myself dealing with perpetual criticism of the Vote Leave campaign’s use of the ‘£350m’ figure during last year’s EU referendum campaign. Scores of Twitter followers and individuals I know in person have, it seems, converged on me, telling me that our figure was either a flat out lie, or that it was harmful to Leave’s campaign more generally. I wanted to address the issue at this blog and explain why I wholeheartedly reject the tiring residue of condemnation that our campaign, and my former employer, continues to receive for its use.
The first interesting aspect to the disapproval that meets Vote Leave’s use of the ‘£350m’ figure (this figure being our gross weekly contribution to the European Union) is that a surprising proportion of it comes from members of our own camp. Much of the abuse thrown my way, and indeed the campaign’s way, has been from fellow Leavers. Criticism is easy to take from your opponents. Often it is useful as it can make you think and allows you to improve upon your own arguments, but when it is from those who you consider to be on your side of the argument, it can be more challenging to take.
I have been told numerous times by voters associated with the UKIP,or Grassroots Out campaigns that our constant referral to the £350m figure nearly cost Leave the referendum. They say that, due to how contentious it was, damaged our credibility and ability to tackle the economic arguments posed by Remain. In the midst of an intriguing 19,000-word recount of how the referendum was won, Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings acknowledged this at his blog, saying:
“Pundits and MPs kept saying ‘why isn’t Leave arguing about the economy and living standards’. They did not realise that for millions of people, £350m/NHS was about the economy and living standards – that’s why it was so effective. Unlike most of those on our side the IN campaign realised the effectiveness of this, as Cooper, Coetze and others said after 23 June. E.g. ‘The power of their £350 million a week can’t be overstated.’ Andrew Cooper, director of strategy for the IN campaign.”
Cummings also makes clear that his pre-referendum research revealed to him that primarily, voters cared about two main issues: immigration and the money in their pocket. By pushing this figure, itself a close approximation of official Treasury figures, and by making it clear that it was gross and not net, we were taking the economic arguments by the scruff of the neck. I often get the feeling from active Leavers that they themselves gave Remain more credit for their economic arguments than they perhaps deserved. I remember vividly, a few days before polling day, sitting in the office late in the evening reading the results of a major IPSOS Mori poll that had swung 10 point in our favour. I have tried to find the exact article but have had no luck so far. Towards the bottom of the report, we were informed that 10% more people believed our Turkey claims than they did Remain’s economic forecasts.
The economic arguments that we were told constantly we failed to address were simply not credible and most did not believe them. So herein lies the first beauty of ‘£350m every week’: it was a simple, believable statistic that when paired with: “let’s spend that on our priorities instead” disarmed Remain’s economic doom-mongering. It reminded voters that, thanks to our ongoing membership of the EU, we had a black hole in the coffers that would be filled upon leaving, and that even if there was damage to the economy, it could be eased by a substantial saving elsewhere.
Another point raised by those who hated our use of the infamous figure was why we decided to make it such a central and prominent theme (painted on our bus, raised in television debates and printed all over campaign materials). ‘If one of your arguments has been so consistently rubbished, why draw so much attention to it?’ they would ask. It’s a good question, but those asking it ought to, just for a moment, step out of the shoes of somebody with a passion for politics and jump into the shoes of the ordinary, mildly engaged man in the street. For Joe public, dipping in and out of referendum content throughout the closing weeks of the campaign or watching our bus drive past, the figure had a significant purpose.
As polling day drew nearer, Number 10 and Stronger In would send out their campaign representatives to do whatever they could to bash our £350m figure and make sure the public was aware of how useless it was. This was counterproductive and soon backfired. In any referendum, two sides are expected to counter eachother’s arguments. But in this particular case, counter-argument worked perfectly in our favour. When IN attacked ‘£350m’, they thought they were squashing our most potent weapon. Actually, they were sharpening it. When they said things like: “it doesn’t take into account the rebate, the net figure is roughly half that!” all it did was remind people that, regardless of the actual numbers, the cost of EU membership was extortionate, and most people were onboard with us when we suggested that British taxpayers’ money would be better off spent here in Britain.
It was also especially useful that quite often, the very people attacking our figure (and economic standpoint) were people and institutions with woeful track records. The Bank of England, the IMF and the British Chambers of Commerce, in particular, were net negative contributors to the campaign they were desperate to strengthen. It also suited the kind of image that we wanted to portray: that of anti-establishmentarianism, even if we were a little Tory-heavy. IN’s economic arguments were confusing (many couldn’t understand how an EU vote possibly linked to a fall in house prices or a rise in food prices), offered by tainted individuals lacking credibility and were rebutted in a way that was simple and relatable. It certainly helps to explain why so many poorer, working class members of society opted for Leave.
Vote Leave’s reliance on ‘We send the EU £350 million a week – let’s fund the NHS instead’ was simple and devilishly effective. It reminded the public of the sheer expense of EU membership whilst presenting a credible alternative to outlandish economic forecasts. It played a hugely important role in winning Leave the referendum, even if Nigel Farage doesn’t seem to think so. Leavers of all allegiances should respect our efforts and our message, even if they did not like our campaign. The fight, we should remember, is far from over.
It does, therefore, trouble me somewhat when I see or hear people asking where our £350m is. I don’t need to insult the intelligence of readers by describing why this amazes me so.
This piece was originally published by the author on his personal blog: https://norgroveblog.com/2017/01/13/what-rival-leavers-need-to-understand-about-vote-leaves-use-of-the-350m-figure/