The “politics of fear” has been a phrase that has been increasingly used to describe the public debate around the EU referendum. What is this referring to exactly? It is both the tone and the content of the most prominent discussions that have disappointed many, including myself. This has been a poor quality, lazy debate, one in which both sides have prioritised negative speculation over a more hopeful, aspirational rhetoric about the kind of society we want to see, both at a national and international level.
Yes a referendum is naturally binary – given our choices are ‘yes’, or ‘no’, ‘remain’ or leave’ – but this need not mean that the key messages and calls to action need to be solely based on divisiveness and negative speculation. This is a technique that campaigners have actively chosen to use, because they believe that these messages are most likely to achieve salience with voters.
And so the Remain campaign has emphasised that a vote to leave the EU would mean that Britain would decrease its influence in the world, that the negative effects on the economy and costs to British jobs, entrepreneurs and small businesses would be severe in the case of a Brexit, not to mention the dangers to British national security, wider risks of international insecurity and instability, and threats to the unity of the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the Leave campaign has adopted similar messages in reverse – the dangers of continuing to engage in the EU’s bureaucracy indecisiveness and lethargy, the threat of rising immigration, the undermining of Britain’s national security and stability, and so on.
Many of these points may be well-intended and indeed grounded in fact if not strong opinion and beliefs, but what is telling is that they are based around what people have got to lose. And furthermore, both campaigns have accused the other of inspiring fear and relying on negativity.
Who are the real losers in this equation? Clearly, the lasting effects will be on the younger generation. Not only because it is this generation that will live through the outcome of the referendum, but because they – we – are already more distrustful and less engaged with the political establishment.
The attitudes and voting intentions of younger people (those between 18-35 years old) have become an increasing focus for campaigners and commentators given the large gulf in opinion between older and younger voters. Younger people have grown up with a more internationalist outlook, are more likely to be concerned about global issues such as environmentalism, human rights and humanitarian aid. They hold concurrent, cosmopolitan identities, are less aligned with traditional notions of sovereignty, and more comfortable with migration (one of the key concerns for an older demographic and so often the focus of pro-Brexit campaigns). On the whole this outlook means that younger voters are more likely to want to stay in the EU – polls indicate that 2/3 or more under 35s will vote will opt to stay in; with over 55s the picture is almost the reverse.
HOWEVER, this is if younger people actually turn up at the polling booth. And this is where the failings of the public debate are most acute. In general, political behaviour of the under-35s is manifested in issue-based causes and online campaigns – a key opportunity for the referendum campaigns to reflect the terms of engagement with which this generation is comfortable. Moreover, research on referenda suggests that campaigns matter more than in general elections, where voting is more habitual and based on entrenched attitudes. Yet very little has been done by either campaign so far to inspire younger people to get engaged and involved. Instead, we have seen polarised debates resulting in mirror arguments of the same issues. In opinion polls, younger people report having the least amount of knowledge about the EU (although this doesn’t mean they are actually the least knowledgeable) and so reducing the debate into a continuous case of “he said she said” further undermines levels of confidence in making this decision.
Instead, each campaign would do better to focus on would could be achieved which is good for all. One politician recently said continuing EU membership would “destroy young people’s dreams of getting on the housing ladder” – so what would it take instead to build those dreams, and use hopes and aspirations as a positive force for the campaigns. To the credit of the Leave campaign some commentators have recently used hopeful terms about national pride and control, but this is deafened by cries and accusations about the ‘lies’ of experts and other public figures. For the Remain side this should be a public education opportunity as much as a political operation – why not talk more about what the EU is for, both historically and in the present. It is the positive case for a global society which will mobilise younger people to turn up at the voting booth on June 23rd, and which will inspire civic engagement in the longer term.