Richard North, 20/11/2015  
 

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Ten days and over 16,000 words later and we come to a concluding piece on referendum strategy – the end of this short series but by no means the last word on the issue. But it is significant that even now we have written far more in the public domain in this one series than we have seen collectively from the two "noisemakers", Vote Leave Ltd and Leave.eu.

There is some sense, one might argue, in keeping secret the elements of one's strategy, so one might suppose that both these operations are withholding from the public details of their intentions. The absence of material in the public record, therefore, does not necessarily mean that there are no strategies in place.

However, I take the view that it is unlikely that there is anything coherent in place. An undisclosed strategy may be invisible but its very nature suggests that, if one does exist, its presence and structure can be inferred from the actions of those bound by it. But, from neither organisation can we see any coherence that would suggest that there exists anything which has been thought through.

That is not to say though that we do not see coordinated activity, but that does not a strategy make. It just adds to that growing body of confusion about the nature of strategy. Too many people think that stringing together a series of activities, especially when bound to a timetable, forms a strategy. It does not.

It was thus quite apposite that, in the first post of the series, I looked at the nature of strategy, and in particular through a topical filter, in terms of the Prime Minister's recent activities.

What we saw – if our analyses are well-founded – is that Mr Cameron does indeed have a strategy. He has created a "middle way", the full extent of which he is yet to reveal but which we expect to morph into associate membership. He is conscious of the problems of the EU, so he is going to "fix these challenges, fix these problems".

For us, I averred, this is dangerous. Mr Cameron is not attempting to appeal to either extreme - he knows they have fixed positions. Instead, "Mr Reasonable" is appealing directly to the "moderate middle". And bizarrely, the "mad genius" of euroscepticism, Dominic Cummings, does not see the danger. The one without a strategy seems to think that Mr Cameron does not have a strategy.

Strategy pays off, I then stated, when you state your objective and focus on how to get there. We need to do the same thing, in which context the key is the enemy's strategy, the enemy being the Prime Minister. He has the initiative in so many areas that, inevitably we must respond to him. Our core strategy, has to be reactive, and it has to be intelligence-led. There are three stages: we must identify the threat; we must neutralise it; and then we must mount a counter-attack.

By the time my second piece was in the writing, Mr Cameron was unveiling his "British model of membership". In campaigning terms, this gaves us our marching orders. Our intelligence has identified the target. It is now urgently necessary to attack this "British model", and then come up with a better – and credible – alternative. This is where the bulk of our resources should be focused.

Despite such clarity, though, it was becoming evident that the "big hitters" – those we call the "noisemakers – were not seeing the point. In the third piece, therefore, I was ruminating about the other band of enemies with which we are afflicted, our supposed allies whose crass actions are handicapping us in meeting and beating the real enemy.

If we are to win, I declared, we have to choose the right enemy and where there are multiple enemies, deciding on priorities is often the crucial strategic decision. At the moment, the principal barriers between us and victory are our so-called allies, the "noisemakers". They are getting in our way, confusing the message, blurring the issues and undermining our work.

By our next piece, we were firming up on the shiny "British Model", recognising it as a game-changer. And with that, many of the assumptions on which current campaigns are based now become irrelevant. To be effective, I declared, the tenor of campaigning needs to be adjusted to meet the new conditions on the ground.

Clearly, the priority target must be the Prime Minister's "British model". But to get coordinated action pre-supposes that the "noisemakers" are even aware of, and understand, this development. As it stands, there is no sign that these groups have the capability – or the willingness – to devote any of their resources to intelligence-led campaigning. There is not even any sign that they know the purpose of intelligence gathering.

This brought us to the point where we were seeing the results of a Survation poll which puts support for leaving at 53 percent, with the "remains" at 47 percent. By contrast, though, we were seeing the British Election Study have 61 percent wanting to remain, while only 39 percent expressed "leave" as a preference.

The "take home" point from this is that, even at face value, polls must be taken with a pinch or salt. But it also points up that polls are simply one form of political intelligence – and only one. In this campaign, the more important tool is political intelligence, used with a view to identifying the enemy's intentions.

Failure to acquire and use this intelligence means that actions are reactive rather than predictive. Yet, to be successful, we must detect changing conditions in order to change our plan to meet the new realities on the ground. The earlier information gets to the strategists, the better equipped they are to craft appropriate and effective responses.

So far, this intelligence suggests that David Cameron is adopting the technique known as triangulation. Specifically, this paints eurosceptics and Europhiles as the extremes of the argument, creating space for him to occupy the "moderate middle".

On this basis, we deduced that the more sound and fury produced by the two sides, the better it was for the Prime Minister. By that measure, the more apparently successful the "leavers" become – especially if they consider media coverage the hallmark of success – the worse off we will actually be.

Therefore, it is imperative, I argue, that we should not be engaging in battles with the europhiles – or even attacking the EU. Mr Cameron will be (and is) presenting himself as the pragmatic fixer. Instead of dealing with the minutia, he will present himself as rising above the fray with plans to reform the terms of Britain's membership of the EU. This in turn offers the possibility of greater reforms arising from our new status - far greater than he could get from a short-term focus on points of detail (or so Mr Cameron will tell us).

In these circumstances, the constant litany of woes presented by "leavers" about the parlous state of the EU, and the real or supposed injuries, is simply playing into Mr Cameron's hands. He will accept the criticisms and agree with them – and then take credit for coming up with an apparently workable solution. Only if the "moderate middle" judge his solution to lack credibility will they then be prepared to look at alternatives.

And here again the Sun Tzu counsel much prevail. We must modify our approach in accordance with our enemy's situation. We attack the "middle way" and then, when we see its popularity wane, we can commit our reserves to a counter-attack, hitting hard with our vision of an alternative, alongside a credible mechanism for achieving it.

That actually brings us back to where we came in. In this endeavour, opinion polls would be of some use – as indeed would focus groups. But they should be the servants of strategy, not the drivers of it.

At this point, we stepped aside briefly to take stock after the Paris murders, and reminded ourselves that the refugee crisis in Europe was not driven primarily by EU law, but by the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, and the 1967 Protocol. With or without the EU, we would have these international agreements, and it is those which give substance to EU procedural laws, such as the Schengen acquis.

Furthermore, the Syrian crisis owes nothing to the existence of the EU, and the likelihood is that eruptions in the troubled Middle East would have continued unabated, with or without European political integration. Thus, there were no pickings in Paris for the "leavers".

Sunday then saw the essence of the "British model" described as giving "dignity and historical resonance to a position that will seem to many people a middle way between fully in and fully out - appealing to the mild Euroscepticism that is the centre ground of British opinion". Our strategic targets had become that much clearer.

Picking up on this, the next day, we developed the theme of providing an alternative to Mr Cameron's "British model", and the need for voter reassurance that a choice to leave was not a leap in the dark. Not only did we need an alternative "vision", though, we had to offer a credible mechanism for achieving it – the so-called exit plan.

We touched on the actions of a "malign praetorian guard", defending the orthodoxy and sustaining a litany of stale ideas and clichés which has changed little over forty years, which was thus preventing a plan being adopted. Our Flexcit was treated as something close to heresy.

Nevertheless, we averred, a strategic approach demanded a proper, honest debate about where we are going, a commitment to agree a common exit plan, and the discipline to stand behind it when it is produced, with the aristocracy burying their egos. It is either that, or the opposition will bury us.

This brought us to a matter of detail, the two-edged sword of immigration. Noting that Vote Leave Ltd was avoiding the issues, we saw that as a mistake, especially with the strong international elements to asylum seeking.

As to freedom of movement, it was essential that we took an active role, in order to address an inherent contradiction at the heart of the campaign. On the one hand, we needed to show voters that we can protect our participation in the Single Market after we leave the EU and, on the other, we needed to reduce immigration from EU Member States, this ostensibly requiring release from freedom of movement obligations.

The problem is that we can do one or the other, but not both. We are thus confronted with a dilemma. We will have to choose between the Single Market and freedom of movement.

In Flexcit, we square the circle by adopting an interim position. This protects our Single Market participation and puts on hold changes to freedom of movement until we are able to broker a longer-term solution. But, pending that solution, we see scope for improving the management of immigration which, over the short- to medium-term, can help stem immigration flows.

Without continued access to the Single Market, we cannot win the referendum, so we will have to compromise. But, a "quick and dirty" exit, accepting continued freedom of movement for a while, is better than losing the referendum for lack of compromise.

Via Peter Kellner, we then looked at the problems of communication, without the assistance of the legacy media, having regard to the problem of prestige.

We can expect Mr Cameron - relying on the considerable prestige of the office of prime minister – to offer his version of Wilsonian negotiations. Supported by the prestige of other political and establishment figures, we could find ourselves looking at a re-run of 1975. It may not be exact, but so close as to make no difference.

With the internet, though, we have the ability to communicate with people directly, by-passing the media. But people are overly influenced by the prestige of the source rather than the content. Thus we have to develop plans to communicate with our target audiences in such a way as to neutralise the effects of prestige.

Assuming that prestige wanes over distance, those with lesser prestige but who are closer to hand can over-rule those with greater prestige. Thus we need to get our sources as close to the ground as possible.

If people get their information from people close to them – trusted figures, or those with authority – then the local prestige can neutralise the prestige of a prime minister. Meshed with our cascade system, with a hundred or more bloggers creating their own communities, we can reach large numbers of people very quickly.

And that brought us to our final piece where we evaluated the approach taken by the Leave.eu referendum guru, finding ourselves unimpressed with the approach. To this issue I intend to return.

But we conclude with the view that we need a strategic debate. The opportunity is in our hands. We can be bovine conformists, waiting to be led down the muddied track to an uncertain future, or we can strike out on our own, and dictate our own terms of participation. We have the tools – we do not need the input of second-raters who are in this way over their heads.

Therein is the real point. If war is too important to be left to Generals, the referendum campaign strategy (or lack of it) is too important to left to self-appointed groups which seem to have their own agendas.

From many different directions, I hear people telling us that we should all work together. Very often that is directed at me personally, but that injunction needs to be pointed in more than one direction.

There are thousands of people who want to contribute to this campaign, but not all can or will want to work through these self-appointed groups. If this is to be an inclusive "people's campaign", then these groups have to open themselves to a wider debate.

The point has been made many times before. No one owns this campaign, not any individual nor any group. As individuals, we owe nothing to these groups and they have no call on our time or services. If we are to work together, then they must learn that communication is a two-way street.






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