The easiest answer is that they were misled: the blatant lie that the UK has been losing £350 million weekly to the EU and that this money could be spent on the NHS; questionable claims about the threat of Turkey joining the union; and backtracking following the last minute decision to put immigration at the forefront of the Vote Leave campaign.
But the idea that voters were blind to the debunking of myths on both sides of the debate, or that they somehow voted against their own will, is to skirt around a difficult truth – which is that Vote Leave and media organisations that supported Brexit won because they spoke to the general public’s very real concerns.
During a post-recession age of austerity – it was the Vote Leave camp, and not Britain Stronger in Europe, who reached out to people in their misery and promised them change.
In a bizarre reversal of political norms, Boris Johnson was the one putting inequality at the top of the agenda in the BBC’s Great Debate (drawing 3.9 million viewers). He argued that: ‘the differentials in income in our country have become too great’, before bemoaning a state of affairs in which ‘FTSE100 chiefs are now earning 150 times the average pay of people on the shop floor’.
He even cast the Remain Stronger in Europe campaign as being callously disinterested in the welfare of people on lower incomes, quoting the Remain campaign leader Lord Rose’s remarks that wages of low skilled workers could rise in the event of a Brexit (which Rose had inadvisably insisted was ‘not necessarily a good thing’).
Johnson – in common with his fellow Leave campaigners – was drawing on and taking advantage of a popular belief that the EU is a fundamentally inegalitarian institution.
A YouGov poll published back in April revealed that even before the referendum campaign had got going, most people imagined that Brexit would have minimal negative impact on the working classes, whilst having a significant negative impact on people running big businesses.
Media coverage of the referendum in leading pro-Leave publications firmed up these convictions by concentrating on the impact of EU membership on Britain’s poorest – the success of which has been clearly demonstrated by the class divide in the nation’s voting patterns.
The Sun, for instance, continuously fixated on the cost for British workers of EU open borders, whilst arguing that in turn ‘big businesses’ have ‘benefitted from cheap labour’. The Daily Express led with articles about EU regulations keeping food prices high. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail ran stories on the impact of EU open borders on those awaiting social housing.
Of course many of these claims are questionable. Most obviously, research carried out by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggests that low-income households are likely to shoulder a disproportionate share of the costs of Brexit – immediately detracting from any claims of potential positive gains.
And yet Vote Leave still won the argument.
It is true that the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign also put jobs, prices and workers’ rights at its forefront. But it made a basic error: it adopted the position of defending the status quo at a time of hardship.
Britain Stronger in Europe told Britons: you and your family have ‘more opportunities and more financial security‘ now than you would outside of the EU. It tried to convince voters that they were already enjoying the benefits of ample workers’ rights; of saving £350 a year through lower prices; of massive investment from the EU; and of unprecedented employment opportunities courtesy of Europe.
Its campaign leaders adopted the policy of trying to persuade the nation that they’ve never had it so good at a time when 4.6 million people live in a state of persistent poverty, homeownership is majorly in decline, foodbank use is continuing to rise, people face long-term wage stagnation and claims of a return to acceptable employment levels mask a reality in which precarious new forms of employment have replaced stable, full-time jobs.
Under these circumstances, spelling out the benefits of EU membership is a bit like a doctor patronisingly telling a patient in acute pain that the medicine is working.
The tragedy is that the Remain vote could so easily have accepted people’s complaints and shifted the debate in the direction of the need for change.
Whilst Brexit may well be a red herring – deceiving people into believing that they have found the single solution for all of the social injustices that they are subjected to – the EU is hardly a blameless target.
It is an undemocratic institution that in Greece, Portugal and Ireland has shown that it puts the interest of bankers and big business before the people.
The point is that in conceding points against the EU and speaking about the need for reform, Corbyn was completely at odds with the referendum strategy of Britain Stronger in Europe.
His detractors should seek solace in the knowledge that Corbyn’s strategy was right. The failure lies in the fact that it didn’t receive enough attention.