13 April 2016

Vote Leave designated as the official Brexit campaign

The Electoral Commission this afternoon announced that Vote Leave will be the official Leave campaign in the EU referendum as opposed to the UKIP-backed GO (Grassroots Out) Movement, or indeed the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition which somewhat ambitiously also sought the nomination. This outcome was widely expected given Vote Leave’s cross-party representation and campaign experience, but according to the Commission’s score card, the decision was relatively close.

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While some GO supporters have urged all Leave supporters to now rally behind Vote Leave, Arron Banks, the founder and main backer of Leave.EU (one of GO Movement’s constituent parts), has already announced he will challenge the decision legally. However, it is extremely unlikely that the referendum will be delayed, not least since its date is fixed in law.

Winning the designation means Vote Leave will be allowed to spend up to £7m (not including overheads) during the campaign including a £600,000 public grant. In addition it will also benefit from guaranteed broadcast rights and a free mailshot.

So what are the implications for the nature of the EU debate?

Although naturally both Vote Leave and GO identified many of the same issues to campaign on, there are notable differences in terms of tone and emphasis which will matter as the campaign gets underway properly.

In general, Vote Leave have identified the economy – including the UK’s EU budget contribution – and sovereignty (hence their ‘take control’ strapline) as the key issues to focus on in the campaign. Their messages aimed at appealing to the undecided voters and the soft Leave/Remain supporters who will determine the outcome. This will likely be mixed in with positive if vaguely defined visions of life post Brexit and their own version of ‘Project Fear’ about the risks of staying in the EU such as being swept up in further integration. Key themes will likely include the NHS, jobs, trade links with the rest of the world and security. Immigration will be a theme but not a predominant one, and it will mostly be framed in terms of ‘control’ and ‘fairness’ as opposed to outright hostility.

In contrast, a GO Movement-led campaign, given its significant UKIP involvement, would have had immigration front and centre. Likewise, the tone would have been much more strident and aimed at mobilising voters already hostile to the EU as opposed to swing voters. Also, it would most likely have been more economically protectionist, focusing on the perceived threat to UK public services posed by TTIP and the inability of the UK to support key industries such as steel due to EU rules on state aid. That said, Vote Leave has also been playing up these aspects recently and trying to paint themselves as an anti-establishment campaign (despite the involvement of a number of Conservative Cabinet Ministers).

This does not mean UKIP and Nigel Farage will disappear

The above matters when it comes to the high level messages of the Leave campaign – when ordinary voters who do not follow the twists and turns of the EU debate on a regular basis engage with the campaign they will hear – on the whole – a more economically liberal pro-Brexit argument.

However, this does not mean that other pro-Brexit voices will disappear. UKIP and Nigel Farage will continue to run on-the-ground campaigns and receive airtime to make the alternative case for Brexit, including a strong focus on reducing immigration.

The question now is whether the different campaigns will complement each other, pitching different arguments to different groups of voters, or whether they will clash and contradict one another to the detriment of their shared objective.