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What I learned from trying — and failing — to stop Brexit

I woke at 5:30 am on Friday to find that 52 percent of the UK voted in favor of Brexit, the UK leaving the European Union. My first political campaign was over, and after months of volunteering, I had lost. The empty feeling in my gut wasn't for the result, which has not sunk in, but from a jarring sense of disconnect with large numbers of my fellow citizens.

I recognize I am the archetypal "Remain" voter: young, with a master's degree in international relations, time lived in Berlin, and Europeans among my closest friends. I have worked for five years as a political editor at a magazine targeted at "young Europeans," and in many ways I've benefited directly from EU membership.

Despite months of conversations with people, I still didn't see the graveness of the situation, although the signs were there

With the right of free movement and my European health insurance card, I lived my early adulthood transnationally, in ways that some of my old school friends in the north of England have not. What I hadn't realized was just how far my experiences had moved me away from their views and those of 17.4 million people.

I was a volunteer team leader for Barnet, a region of north London that would vote 62 percent for "Remain." Every weekend was dedicated to leafleting sessions, talking to people outside shops and metro stations two hours at a time.

As the referendum got closer, I spent the evenings after work leafleting houses or at four-hour phone banks to rally volunteers ahead of the next campaign event. I lost track of the hours dedicated to the cause, but after the result I began to wonder if I could've done more.

Despite months of conversations with people, I still didn't see the graveness of the situation, although the signs were there. Instead of an engaged conversation about the merits of EU membership, so many chats moved on to the "dire state of the UK" and people's resentment about their current circumstances.

People were voting in anger for a Leave that promised better things, and I was ill-equipped to convince them that leaving could make things worse. I kept telling myself that if I changed just one person's perspective on the issue, I'd have achieved something. I wish I'd been able to do more than that.

People did not understand the EU

I might never have gotten involved with the Remain campaign in the first place had the Leave campaign not published material suggesting, "Let's give the National Health Service the £350 million the EU takes every week."

The figure is wrong, and as someone whose works on health policy, using the financial challenges of the NHS struck me as an irresponsible, reductive tactic. I realized if one side was falsely claiming that membership to the EU led to underfunding of the beloved NHS, there was little hope for a vote of remaining in Europe.

The misunderstandings and misinformation about the referendum were clear on the streets. The reasons people gave for voting Leave were varied and often unrelated to the EU. I heard "Europe" blamed for everything including that "the local council has not fixed the roads in years" and that the EU had not saved Woolworths or BHS, British shopping chains that went bankrupt within the past several years.

Many people did have well-substantiated concerns around the democratic deficit within the European Union, or held a belief in the economic potential of trading with countries outside of the EU. But these arguments represented only one angle of the Leave vote.

It was my job to convince the people I talked to that there was a positive case to be made, that Britain was "stronger in." I was keen to make sure every voter at least understood that there are good economic reasons for being part of the single market, and that the negative image of "Europe" they had seen in the newspapers was only one side of the story. I hoped I could build a fuller picture of the UK's relationship with the EU and begin to ensure that people considered what was really at stake in the referendum.

Although we had all the usual campaigning materials, it felt as though for every myth I debunked, there were another five that a skeptical voter could name as fact. I fear we only ever made a tiny impact in the many misconceptions around the EU, let alone convince people that it could be a positive thing.

People did not believe the risks of Brexit

In a conversation with a Remain campaign official in April, I was told that the top three areas where they would win the argument were on the economic impact of Brexit on the cost of living, the importance of the European Union for security, and, in London at least, the benefits of EU regulation on the environment.

I learned quickly, however, that I simply couldn't, with one conversation and a badly designed leaflet, convince people the EU was economically beneficial to them. Faced with an image of Europe cultivated by a Euroskeptic press for decades as an unnecessary, bureaucratic attack on British sovereignty, a few months of campaigning was insufficient to change minds.

Closing that gap between instinct and factual argument was, in retrospect, always going to be a harder task than it appeared. It was exacerbated by a brand of anti-intellectualism deployed by Leave campaigner Michael Gove, former education secretary.

When faced with a challenging fact, Gove dismissed it, suggesting, "People in this country have had enough of experts." This anti-intellectual and anti-establishment sentiment set the tone for conversations on the street and became a catchall excuse to avoid answering concerns about Brexit.

If I told a pro-Leave person about evidence from experts from Oxford and London School of Economics universities forecasting another recession, it was dismissed out of hand. A lack of certainty would be conflated with lack of evidence, or worse, taken to be part of a "project fear" propagated by elites against ordinary people.

During the campaign, I was repeatedly accused of being someone who "just doesn't get it" on Europe. In one way, they were right.

In a conversation I had with one voter, I started by saying I believed it was better to stay in, given that almost 50 percent of our trade is with EU and that experts predicted a recession if we left.

They responded that they "didn't like giving money to the EU — what is it, 300 and something million? — when it could be spent on things like the NHS."

I'd point out that I worked in health and this wasn't the issue, and that, in line with the "stronger in" message, "the UK received £10 back for every £1 it put in."

The best I could hope for with this, and on many other occasions, was that the conversation would end in a stalemate, with the utterly depressing response that "no one knows what will happen after Brexit, so why not give it a try?"

I realize now that the level to which the Remain campaign failed to convince people that the economic risk to the country outweighed its benefits is striking. The highest concentration of Leave votes was in areas most economically dependent on trade with the European Union.

In one such area, Ebbw Vale in Wales, 62 percent of people voted their community out of £1.8 billion investment to support regeneration of the local economy. The local council has now asked the UK government to replace it.

I learned too that a high percentage of voters had long-settled views on the EU, impervious to discussion. The woman who screamed, "Leave!" at me on her way to work was also the woman who wore a badge that read "Santander," a Spanish bank that warned Brexit could lead to the loss of jobs like hers.

People voted against the establishment

But then the referendum was never a simple cost-benefit analysis of EU membership, as the ballot paper may have suggested. Under the banner of "take back control," the Leave campaign had revealed and capitalized on deep cleavages within the country.

Nearly two-thirds of people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds voted Leave. Even on the comparatively wealthier streets of north London, there was disdain at a political class arguing for the status quo.

People who talked to me felt, instead, that we were not addressing their concerns about public services, social housing, and the impact of government spending cuts to welfare. I heard secondhand stories of people in London waiting 10 years for a council house, some of whom had agreed to split up with their partners so that the mother and children would have first priority to a place of shelter.

People said they knew Romanians who didn't work and sat outside cafes all day spending their welfare payments, and would tell me bitterly that "it didn't used to be like this" and that something had to be done. It is fair to assume this anger motivated voting against the establishment in even greater numbers in parts of the country that are less prosperous than London.

What should have become clear to me earlier was how hard it would be to sell a status quo backed by the government to voters who were angry at the current political system. A man was so incensed by the Remain campaign that he took it upon himself to stand directly behind me for 45 minutes. He waved people away and shouted, "Out! Out! Out!" He was one of the less abusive hecklers I encountered.

In areas traditionally voting for the center-left Labour Party, people have recently flocked to vote for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a populist party driven by petty nationalism and xenophobia. It is led by Nigel Farage, a tweed-wearing Trump with less charm and none of the wealth.

The depth of this disaffection was evident from the 2015 general election, in which UKIP secured 12.5 percent of the vote. What I didn't realize was that in a straight referendum, support for UKIP combined with dissenting votes from across the political spectrum gave Leave the edge. The polling seemed to suggest a narrow victory for Remain even on the eve of the referendum, and I didn't realize it would be enough. 

Xenophobia is a problem in the UK

Too often the tone of people's opposition to the EU would take on the language of xenophobia. Here, "taking back control" became a heuristic for stopping the flow of "unknown and unwanted" people from the UK. Genuine concerns about the state of public services would often slip into unsubstantiated racism, as immigrants became the scapegoat for a whole range of problems.

One woman told me the NHS was under intolerable strain because there were too many people accessing it and "my son's operation was delayed because of immigrants," an impossible claim to validate. Another suggested, "Romanians do not work hard like I do and do not deserve benefits."

The language was casual and unnerving, as it differed so clearly from my own perspective. No political narrative emerges ex nihilo, though. Just look to the government's retracted campaign in early 2016 to stop "benefit tourists" coming to the UK to use the NHS. In the purported "£200 million" cost to the NHS by foreign visitors, one can see how official government policy sowed the seeds of the Leave campaign's rhetoric.

I often felt powerless to respond in the face of these xenophobic comments, having never made them myself. It also felt as if the anger direct toward immigrants undercut everything else any of us had to say.

Someone from the campaign's office suggested, "If immigration comes up from a voter, nine times out of 10 they'll be a Leave voter already, so don't worry too much." At the time it sounded defeatist, but in retrospect it would play a large role in our undoing.

A script was sent around to help us amateur volunteers deal with the challenge better. The single line response was, "Britain is stronger, with a fair EU immigration system and access to the single market, our home market of 500 million people." It concluded over further paragraphs to suggest, "Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater" by stopping free movement. Although admirable and correct, it seemed inadequate to deal with the deep-seated anger that was being spat our way.

I thought that this would change for most people on the day that Jo Cox MP was murdered by a man shouting, "Britain first." That morning, Farage, the UKIP leader, was photographed in front of a sign suggesting the UK was at a "breaking point" from migration.

I had believed in the wake of this tragedy that awareness and rejection of the dangers of xenophobic language in politics would be shown in the ballot box. But I was wrong.

One man in London told me he would vote for anything "as long as it doesn't mean a Muslim government." I could do little but laugh nervously as he walked away.

Until after the referendum, I still assumed these were just a small minority of cases. Police reports show, however, that they are more common than we assume; a 57 percent increase in reported hate crime incidents have been reported since the referendum. These include graffiti on a Polish cultural center, notes posted in houses saying "Polish vermin" should leave, and a woman hanging a Nazi flag outside a school.

Following Brexit, the number of foreign friends and colleagues who have already asked me whether they will be forced to leave the country has broken my heart.

In the referendum, views of multiculturalism, social liberalism, and globalism were crystallized. For 69 to 81 percent of leavers they are a "force for ill," and those who saw them as a positive force predominantly voted Remain.

Immigration was the primary concern for many voters in the final round of pre-referendum polling. Harnessing these forces in dog whistle slogans such as "We want our country back," the Leave campaign has contributed to the mainstreaming of the anti-immigration far-right rhetoric.

What happens next?

The result has left the country shocked and deeply divided. In areas that voted strongly Remain and among the younger generation, there is a feeling of betrayal and despair. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, betrayal has deeper political significance, where nationalists now have renewed vigor in calling for the very real breakup of the UK. For those who voted Leave, the immediate reversal of pledges on NHS funding and reducing immigration made during the campaign will no doubt leave a bitter taste long after polling day.

My inbox is now full of emails from activists and friends proposing to create new pro-European movements and political parties and join nearly 4 million voters who have signed a petition calling for a second referendum. I leave them unanswered, conflicted. I campaigned for months to stop Brexit. It is still, in my view, the wrong result, but I fear the consequences of "stealing" the result away from 17 million people.

One man in London told me he would vote for anything "as long as it doesn't mean a Muslim government." I could do little but laugh nervously as he walked away.

During the campaign, I was repeatedly accused of being someone who "just doesn't get it" on Europe. In one way, they were right — too often, we were talking about different referendums. While I wanted to vote on the benefits of the EU and risks associated with leaving it, many others wanted to decide on the people, values, and politics underpinning it — things they felt had too often failed them.

Two years ago, I wrote an article on the EU suggesting that "the facts of the issue cannot remain as unknown and as warped as they currently are." I wish I'd understood sooner that this was only one facet of fighting this referendum.

It's clear to me now that voters brought a whole range of hopes, concerns, and fears into the polling station on referendum day. Some were legitimate, others misguided, but in talking to people I slowly realized that these beliefs were more deeply held than I could've previously imagined. Perhaps recognizing this earlier would have made me a better campaigner. It's something I'll remember for next time.

Mathew Shearman volunteered for Britain Stronger in Europe during the UK referendum campaign. He writes on UK and EU politics, having worked as political editor of Europe & Me magazine and published articles in New Eastern Europe, Visegrad Insight, and Süddeutsche Zeitung. He has appeared as a political analyst on BBC News 24 and works as a political communication consultant in London. Find him on Twitter @shearmanm.

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