With the insult of coming third in the Peterborough by-election, adding to the injury of fifth place in the European elections, the Conservative party needs to coalesce quickly around a new leader – one who can heal the party’s historic divisions and set out a distinctive agenda on Europe.
Whether the UK leaves the EU in October or negotiates a further extension, this country’s relations with the continent will continue to shape our politics for decades to come. It’s essential that the fallout from any further rupture with Brussels should not be allowed to poison a historic relationship that goes far beyond the political.
The problem for any new Prime Minister is that most of the toxic European debate in Britain has centred on transactional concepts: how much we owe, reciprocal guarantees for citizens, the risks and rewards of EU pillars like free movement.
What gets lost in this debate is what sits underneath all our national identities, the powerful undertow of belonging to something bigger: in short, our nascent “European” identity. With this lies the key to an emotional appeal which could help overcome the acrimonious binary debate of “in versus out” – and perhaps even save a Europe threatened by disintegration.
We know this sentiment exists – our recent research in an eastern European country uncovered a strong layer of European as well as national identity at work. But how to turn identity into something positive, rather than a force for division?
The Brexit campaign understood this territory intuitively and spoke directly to people’s inchoate fears about the erosion of British identity, its rallying cry of defiance chiming with an instinctive underdog spirit.
Rather than responding in kind (identifying and celebrating our common ties), the Remain campaign hit back with facts, statistics, and fearmongering, lamentably devoid of any persuasive advocacy for Europe.
This constitutes an abject failure on the part of pro-EU campaigners, both during the referendum campaign and in the three years since. As a man who deals in data, I say this without irony – we are all, fundamentally, emotional creatures. Data can and should be used to educate and substantiate, but to really connect with people there has to be a cause they can believe in.
We all know what those who backed anti-EU MEP candidates last month were voting against, but what did pro-EU supporters vote for? What is it that binds us? Adapting a line from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, what has being part of Europe ever done for us?
This isn’t just a British problem – the EU has shown itself unable to take preemptive action and build “Brand Europe”. If it is to do so, and if the new UK Prime Minister is to smooth this acrimonious debate, it will mean using all the tools of twenty-first century communication.
Behavioural psychology is developing new research techniques to interrogate our multi-layered identities, how we switch between them, and what triggers feelings of “belonging” beyond our national, religious or ethnic selves. Social media listening tools can sift resonant themes from millions of public online conversations, using semantic analysis and natural language processing to extract meaning and nuance from online debate.
We can collect and analyse information on a scale previously unimaginable, and digital media allows us to communicate with far greater accuracy. We saw how the Leave campaign used such tools to great effect to solidify support around a British identity – now the pro-EU side just needs to catch up.
We have more in common than that which divides us. If one of the leadership candidates could tap into this idea of pride in our European heritage and build a story around it which reinforces a genuine feeling of a shared cultural identity, they might find it a winning ticket in the election. And Conservative members would have something to vote for, rather than just against.