Monday, 23 November 2015

Arron Banks doesn't have the first clue

I had an illuminating exchange with Arron Banks on twitter today with regard to campaign strategy. In just two or three tweets we saw the gravity of his incomprehension. The short of it is that Banks is a slave to polling and big data. That's never a good idea.

The problems with polling are well documented and you know them as well as I do and I have massive reservations over betting the farm on number crunching because I have no confidence that Banks is even asking the right questions of the data.

Banks is approaching this from the angle of seeking out constituencies and pumping out messages directly at them, telling them what he thinks they want to hear - no matter how much one message contradicts the next. It's political ambulance chasing - and just because you can get the information to the people does not mean they are going to vote for you. Especially if your brand is tainted and you have no gravitas.

Winning depends on having the credibility to convincingly call the Prime Minister a liar when he announces his final package of reforms - and not look like ranting misanthropes. The Prime Minister has prestige and a large degree of public trust that comes with the position. We have to undermine his credibility but then also be prepared so that when asked what our alternative is we have something better on offer. That something must also be credible and it must be attractive.

If the campaign has spent two whole years belching out contradictory fact free nonsense to anyone who will listen then any proposal put forward will come face to face with past output. The contradictions will be many and inescapable. Our authority is instantly lost. Moreover, we know from the Ukip experience that tawdry memes do not make up the numbers we need to win. It's that swing vote who would never vote Ukip in a billion years that we need.

In terms of identifying the target audience, that much has already been done for us. Not having Bank's money, I can't afford pollsters and focus groups. But then it occurs to me that I don't need them. I can just use David Cameron's who will be among the best anywhere. His people are telling him that he needs a moderate reasonable message to talk to the swing vote - and so that is the ground we must seek to occupy too.

We've already been over the basics in that it's really the middle ground our campaign is after and the more Leave.EU runs a crass populist campaign the more distant they become from the people we need. In that regard, Leave.EU's recent form is Christmas come early for Cameron.

Banks protests that he doesn't just "grunt about foreigners" but the problem he has is that he's fished in all the Ukip ponds for support, so the things that will get the most retweets are the things that echo the Ukip message. I don't need a big data sniffer to tell me that. Everybody knows there is a strong Ukippy whiff coming off Banks's operation. That cannot win the debate in the public sphere and cheap populism cannot win the confidence of opinion formers.

The point that we tire of spelling out, is that opinions trickle down from the top. There is the influential and prestigious SW1 bubble, followed by the wider media and then Twitter and social media. That is the spectrum of public debate. The tone of that debate gives off certain vibes and players within it are opinion formers to their own cohort. Each is a trusted node in their own circle.

We are seeking to dominate that sphere and be a respected source of information. Integrity, trust and gravitas matter. If the core of the main campaign in the end is one of contradiction, guesswork and grunty noises about foreigners then word rapidly gets out that we don't have the goods and we're bunch of whinging dinosaurs.

Brexit will be seen as a tainted idea, promoted by ghastly people who have a thin grasp of the facts who want us to take a big and reckless gamble. There is no coming back from that. We have to win the argument and be seen to be winning it. The opposition can afford mistakes. We cannot. If we cannot secure the confidence of voters, we cannot win.

To that end, our brand must use the time it has to establish itself as the never-wrong machine. Cheap memes with disposable factoids will come back to haunt us. Moreover, they are not useful to the debate. We need to be spelling out to voters what the actual choice is. We need to spell out that it's a choice between a tight leash on the fringe of Europe or joining the global party.

We need to show that Cameron's package is not desirable and that our vision is. We must also emanate competence that we know what the implications are and that we know what we are doing. Blind optimism or the suggestion that Brexit is a risky business will result in defeat.

Looking at Leave.EU as an entity as it stands it has brought nothing to the table except for recycled Ukip factoids and the usual tired eurosceptic tropes. The associations are already tainted and the arguments themselves are not fresh material. These are old souls pushing old ideas. As we remarked on LeaveHQ today, both sides are fighting old battles that are entirely irrelevant to the modern context. The way we position the argument is to take the high ground and rise above both camps so we are in the same ring as Cameron - the real opposition in this.

I have argued that in order to take that middle ground then our side needs new ideas, better arguments and a new vibe that departs from the tragically miserbalist eurosceptic groove. We need a clear distinction between our message, the kipper grunters and the hardcore federalists. We are competing for the reasonable title. Coming at it from the traditional Eurosceptic angle is basically trying to sell Bacon to Muslims. Not gonna happen.

In business if you have a market that your product doesn't reach then you must rebrand and modernise the product in order to reach it. Otherwise you concede the territory. In large markets you can afford to do that. You play to your own strengths. In politics, you have to sell your product especially to that elusive market even at the risk of losing your loyal customers.

In a referendum, the market you don't reach easily is the ground you cannot afford concede. They are the object of your campaign. Husky Hugging Dave can tell you that much. (He can also tell you that if you overdo it you end up stuck in a coalition fighting off Ukip). The point being, though is that eurosceptics need their clause four moment, dispensing with the core shibboleths.

In that regard, the crucial test is the taste test. I know a few of the usual Kipper suspects having been in this game for years. I know the type who retweets absolutely anything from any source so long as it paints the EU in a bad light. Those people are the head-banging obsessives, not me. The test being that if those people like what you are doing, then you are doing it wrong. And looking under the hood on the Brexit hash tags on Twitter, the kippers LOVE Leave.EU.

The reality is this. The party that is haemorrhaging votes, losing members and support and one that failed to make a breakthrough with their cul-de-sac populist message is now the one most keen on the Leave.EU message. Banks has looked on the election result and the political wreckage left behind and thought - "those losers there, those are the losers I want running my campaign". Not to put too fine a point on it, that's monumental stupidity right there. Idiocy on stilts.

Our approach is to go large on the global opportunities and the notion that the EU is yesterdays news in the global trading arena. That we need to be at the top tables and engaging where it matters. We need ot show that the EU is a redundant middleman that only complicates and slows down the process of global trade and that is supranational ambitions are actually a nuisance, rather than a driver, in the pursuit of a truly global free trade areas.

We are embedding the written meme that the referendum is a choice between being the driver or the passenger in world affairs, bringing our values to the top tables, demanding transparency and democracy.

Now Banks will miss the point on this, in that he says messages have to be simple. He thinks that an article like that on LeaveHQ is over intellectualising it, and most people don't care about such things and that they are largely the province of head-bangers. Totally misses the point.

As we say above, winning the argument in the public sphere is absolutely essential, but it's also about creating a new vibe that the people demanding Brexit are not the whinging little Englanders but the people who really know what the score is and really mean business. People who are genuinely excited by the potential.

The europhiles have owned the territory on the progressivism for some time by pretending the EU is the very pinnacle of cooperation and the very top table. We should be demonstrating that it is nowhere close and is in fact the little Englander mentality writ large as it complicates rules and puts up more barriers to the world.  

That's not a head-banger message. That is a largely agreeable message that we can reinforce with facts. It speaks to a fundamental truth and sends out the vibe that we know what we want, and we know what we are doing. To get that out we need a campaign working to a strategic narrative and everything we do must reinforce it.

While the issues and the details we go into are complex, the message is not. We need to global, join the global single market - and chuck out the ideas from the last century. The essence being that we should have a partnership with the EU rather than being a subordinate - and that ultimately the people are sovereign. Brexit is an opportunity, not a risk - and we have a clear idea of how to do it.

The problem is, you can feed this stuff to the Kippers to the cows come home, but coming from them, nobody is going to buy it - so those are the last people we want to be putting front and centre. If there is a wrong end of the stick they will grasp it with both hands. If we are seeking to give over a vibe of prideful confidence in our message and its accuracy, it's better if the kippers pipe down.

We saw that immigration is a divisive issue that the right loses hands down under the weight of media bias and left wing sanctimony so any official campaign is best staying far off that subject lest the referendum become a referendum on immigration. That we we definitely will lose since Brexit has little impact on immigration.

Our LeaveHQ message is not only carving through most of the core shibboleths of eurosceptics, it actively seeks to disown them as a whole. We are also saying that not only will we compromise on freedom of movement, we don't actually care just so long as we get out of the EU, because democracy is the issue here, and the rest can be sorted out later when we get out.

This naturally has pissed off enough eurosceptics that they are attacking us. What that tells us is that we have got the pitch entirely right. If Kippers hate you then you must be doing something right. That puts us back in the centre ground. It's counter-intuitive - but most intelligent branding strategies are.

If I had Banks's money that is where I would be taking the campaign. I'd be competing for the reasonable ground and showing the electorate that our Brexit proposal is as reasonable as Cameron's "reforms". In this the tone must at all times take the high ground and if the grunters want to run their own anti-immigration memes then that is their own look out. The lead campaign can't touch it.

We keep it clean, sanitised and competent throughout. If it turns out that by the end of the campaign I am completely wrong, and that it needed to be a toxic message run by grunters, it is far easier to rip off the mask than it is to try and detoxify. Nothing is lost by running a slick operation between now and then. A campaign intractably associated with Ukip can simply not recover the ground.

The bottom line is that Leave.EU as it stands is a destructive, chaotic force that undermines our chances of winning, makes it much harder to win the intellectual argument on-line, and ultimately toxifies the Leave brand. This is guaranteed to keep us in the EU. This must me said as often as is possible. I am appalled that it even needs spelling out.

A skilful campaign should have people who can take a complex narrative with new ideas and train operatives to break it down into manageable messages that inform and shape the debate, rather than blurting out any old lurid crap just so long as it is activity. We need to be able to deliver a credible message and one that speaks with authority.

We need to lay a trail of breadcrumbs that brings you to a natural conclusion. Ours. In this we can take no short cuts or assume the people won't know when we are bullshitting because somebody somewhere will and they will make it known. It is about building our credibility and prestige. If we are not respected and we have blown our prestige then we do not have the means to overcome the gravitas of the Prime Minister. Game over.

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