People’s Vote campaigners vow to overhaul ‘project fear’ image

People’s Vote campaigners are hoping to overhaul the establishment image of the remain campaign and its “project fear” narrative with a mass listening project aimed at informing a future referendum campaign.

The campaign for a fresh Brexit referendum has been holding People’s Voice events for leave and remain voters and plans to expand these in an attempt to identify common concerns.

The events were launched in January by the Labour MP Jess Phillips and have been held in leave-voting towns, including Grimsby and Sunderland, as well as remain towns and cities such as Glasgow and Brighton.

The project is understood to be seeking to run a different campaign to the widely criticised remain operation before the 2016 referendum.

Sources suggested campaigners wanted to “learn the lessons” of that campaign. They also hoped to convince sceptical Labour MPs that a second referendum would not necessarily be divisive, and could even allow the party to take charge of a changed narrative linked to big issues such as climate change and austerity.

In a report looking at the impact of events so far, a key concern cited by both leave and remain voters was fear about falsehoods being fed to voters by politicians, including the remain campaign’s “project fear” and the far-fetched promises made by the leave campaign.

Other worries voiced on both sides of the Brexit divide included a decline of patriotism, rising inequality, climate change and insecure work.

Bridget Phillipson, the Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, said a new referendum campaign would need “a more respectful, honest conversation about this whole issue”.

She said an event she had hosted in Sunderland had proved the Brexit debate need not be acrimonious. “We can agree on the facts and the challenges our country faces even if we disagree on the solutions,” she said.

“I know there are divisions in this country and passionately held views on all sides of the Brexit debate, but I believe we’ll do far better talking about them than sweeping them under the carpet. A final-say referendum can be different from 2016: it can start a conversation that’s long overdue about the things that really matter to this country.”

Andrew Cooper, the pollster for the 2016 Stronger In campaign who is now at Populus, conceded the 2016 referendum campaign had “left a bad taste in the mouth” and had damaged trust in politics.

“Those campaigning to stay in the EU cannot be tin-eared to the towering challenges faced by so many people and communities across the UK,” he said. “There are very good reasons why people voted for Brexit. A successful remain campaign will have to convince them that these challenges are best fixed working within, not outside, the EU.”

More events are set to take place around the country, focusing on areas that voted heavily to leave, including Leigh in Greater Manchester, Luton, and Islwyn in the Welsh valleys.

Huw Merriman, a former Conservative frontbencher who has become a cautious backer of a second referendum as a way to break the impasse in parliament, said the public would only accept a new referendum if it also had the backing of leave voters.

“It’s really important that the campaigners for a new vote show this is not just a ruse to ensure Britain stays in the EU but a genuine opportunity to disentangle Brexit from the Westminster thicket,” Merriman said. “There are more MPs like me on my side of the house but the People’s Vote campaign needs to change if it is to find us.”

Polling done for the People’s Voice report found more than two-thirds of the public thought both sides in the 2016 referendum campaign had told “lies and scare stories, meaning that it was impossible for people to make a proper choice”.

More than 80% said Brexit had “turned out to be much more complicated than we were told in the referendum”.

The report concluded that a new pro-EU campaign must address the underlying causes of the 2016 leave vote and offer credible solutions, as well as avoiding overinflated rhetoric.

Most importantly, it must reject a “project fear” narrative and make a positive case, the report found, a tactic that was “castigated by everyone we spoke to, it remains a complete turnoff to voters”.

It found that voters “simply do not believe that leaving the European Union will cause immediate and significant harm to them and their families” and that any new campaign should be centred on the positive difference the EU can make to jobs and rights.

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