Understanding the fears of those leaning towards Brexit


The snag is that the fears are real. An article on research by Demos which highlights a perception that ethnic minorities are more able to influence things. That fits with a sense of alienation and fear I have been encountering on the doorsteps among the less wealthy and predominantly white people who have been talking of voting for “Out”.

In many of my doorstep conversations with people who say they want to vote out of the EU, I have been left with a sense that it is those who stand to lose most from leaving the EU who are actually being tempted to do this. It’s as if their fears are being played on for the benefit of politicians whose careers would gain from Brexit.

If people are afraid of losing their job, or struggling to afford somewhere to live, and the blame can be pinned on “immigrants” coming “because of the EU”, then the government is neatly absolved of responsibility. The EU becomes the scapegoat, so voting for Brexit makes sense. Except that scapegoats are always symbols for the problem, not the actual problem of government failures.

Scapegoating the EU makes it easy to hide the awkward reality that immigrants stimulate the economy, that we need more house-building, and that years of austerity have taken a toll on the most vulnerable. In another blog posting I explored this in detail, but am left with a sense of people like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove aiming for a major career advance if we vote to leave, and having callously found a way to blame the EU for the shortcomings of their party and government.

How does one counteract this? The question is partly about winning the referendum, which is vital for the long term future of the UK and of the EU, but it is also about standing with people whose fears are being whipped up and manipulated.

A doorstep conversation is not the place for a long discourse on the EU, but I am picking up anxiety, concern and confusion. For some, the decision to vote “out” provides a moment of clarity that lets them escape this. For the others, it would be callous in the extreme to fuel the anxiety, particularly as the aim of the EU is to make life better for all the peoples of Europe, not to undermine them. Things I am tending to have in mind on the doorsteps are:

Why I am bothering to knock

The long explanation for why I am spending time on doorsteps would take a while, so I tend to say I am swayed by the “peace, opportunities, stability and possibility offered by the EU”.

Way of being

I am genuinely concerned at what would happen if we left the EU, but don’t think scare tactics help anyone. On the doorstep it seems important to be genuine and grounded — hoping to offer some of the stability the “Vote leave” rhetoric misses. This feels a little like door-knocking at an election, where perhaps the most important thing is that the voter feels they can trust the candidate.

The long term

I tend to pick up the long term issue of the populations of China and India, and their economic growth. Without scaremongering, this is a light in which being close to our European neighbours makes a great deal of sense.

The subtext

An approach which is altruistic, concerned for people, and not trying to dominate seems entirely appropriate on the doorstep (at least from a LibDem angle), but it is also how the EU tries to operate — so one is modelling something of the EU approach as well as advocating it.

For me the aim is to come over as genuine and trustworthy, so the sense is that there are some worrying things out there, but we are better facing them with our European neighbours.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at markargent.com/blog.

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  • Bill le Breton 13th Jun '16 - 9:52am

    If you want to understand the fears and issues influencing Liberals who are inclined to vote to leave, this is by far and the best thing written on the subject.


    There is a paywall, but I think infrequent fliers to this domain will get through to it.

    Here’s a snippet: “The EU as constructed is not only corrosive but ultimately dangerous, and that is the phase we have now reached as governing authority of crumbles across Europe.

    The Project bleeds the lifeblood of the national institutions, but fails to replace them with anything lovable or legitimate at a European level. It draws away charisma, and destroys it. This is how democracies die.

    “They are slowly drained of what makes them democratic, by a gradual process of internal decay and mounting indifference, until one suddenly notices that they have become something different, like the republican constitutions of Athens or Rome or the Italian city-states of the Renaissance,” says Lord Sumption of our Supreme Court.”

  • Plus the people described above are exactly correct to think that Governments have happily taken whatever taxes the EU immigrant workers pay and pocketed them rather than investing in the improved services – schools, health facilities, transport – that the extra numbers have put pressure on. Around me, every year in every school has a bulge class. Playing fields, IT suites, bug gardens, all built on – push in a few classrooms; no new schools. For Gordon Brown to say today that communities suffering from a degradation in public services should receive more investment is 15 years too late. And our own coalition Government was no better.

    Sorry, political establishment: the years of lies and deception are about to smack you in the face. And no, its not logical. Most voting decisions aren’t.

  • I dunno, I talk to Brexit people and it’s mostly people who do not like or are indifferent to the EU. The thing about that organisation is few people can be bothered to vote for MEPs. They’re seen as an irrelevance, which is why a lot of the most motivated MEP voters are ironically anti-EU and why the Lib Dems did so badly on what should have been home turf. Mostly all that really happens is the votes are cast as an after thought by people who just tick all the same boxes according to which party the normally support in local and general elections. The EU project has basically failed to engage many people in Britain and, judging from the decline in electoral numbers across Europe, isn’t seen as that important elsewhere either. Sure, mass immigration plays a part, but as it is not wanted by 70 plus percent of the population, according to virtually every poll since the 1960s, this surely suggests that ant-immigration sentiment cuts across all social classes and both sides of the debate.
    Face reality, the EU is just not that interesting to a lot of British people. To the point where you have to wonder what would happen to if the Remain campaign was less geared to scare stories.

  • A week or so ago I posted a link on this forum to a fascinating article by Scott Adams – creator of the DIlbert cartoon strip – headlined “6 reasons why Trump will win in a landslide”. I repost it here because it strikes me as relevant to this topic.

    While we can all hope that Adams is wrong, the 6 bullet points he lists strike me as being both accurate about Trump’s support and also applicable to the EU referendum. And as so often, Adams’ observations are trenchant, witty and profound.


  • What we are seeing here is a classic example of what I call the “Eastern Kentucky effect”, where the downtrodden ignorant are manipulated by unscrupulous politicians into worshipping their oppressors. In the Eastern Kentucky example, we see some of the most disadvantaged people in America routinely voting Republican by huge margins (over 80% in some districts). We see it in Turkey, where a similar demographic votes for Erdogan and the AKP in vast numbers. And in Russia, Poland and Hungary and quite a few other places. And now we are seeing it at work in Britain. You can tell these people till you are blue in the face that Johnson and Gove want to make them poorer still (which they do), but while they are in thrall to a highly effective and well-funded propaganda machine they are not going to listen.

    I blame those mainstream politicians who have consistently failed to counter the drip, drip, drip of negative anti-EU propaganda spat out by the newspapers over the years. I also blame the current Labour Party Leadership for failing to get to grips with the situation a lot, lot earlier.

    First the Liberal Democrats were eliminated, then the Labour Party was neutralised. What now stands in the way of a takeover of this country by the hard neo-Hegelian right?

  • Slightly off topic, theres an interesting article on Political Betting about the threat that Brexit poses to Londons new High Tech Start-ups – Silicon Roundabout as its sometimes called. This is really the only comparable development to Californias Silicon Valley & it is entirely dependant on skilled workers from across The EU. Its our good luck that its in The UK & Brexit would probably kill it.

  • Matt (Bristol) 13th Jun '16 - 11:13am

    I think many people who I speak to who are thinking of voting out see the EU as a project of the political elites who make their lives more complicated and less controllable.

    So the argument about ‘taking back control’ (incoherent as I smugly believe it to be myself) becomes a symbolic representation of all the other areas in which people feel they have lost control of their lives.

    The argument against the political classes also means many out-waverering people are very worried about being dismissed as stupid and uninformed by people who feel they are ‘in the know’ and likely to react angrily if they are told they are uninformed to their face, unless this is handled carefully by people they trust and respect.

    The In campaign needs to demonstrate in emotionally trustworthy terms that the EU gives people more control, confidence and certainty over their lives, not less.

    The government has focused on how the EU might make us richer, which isn’t quite the same thing.

    But the problem we have there is that much of the control that there genuinely is has been given to our political leaders, not to us, who have demonstrably failed to act on or devolve those powers, due to the Anglo-British cult of centralisation of power that has afflicted our democracy and governmental structures for years.

    It’s the same thing with the whole ‘our MEPs are unknown’ argument — the (Labour) government gave us an electoral system that near-guaranteed the anonymity of MEPs. ‘The European project’ was not responsible for this implementation of something of crucial significance for the European project. Our government was.

    So subidiarity – which should give more people control – has not delivered it, because of the controlling attitudes of the devolved body.

    As a great believer in federalism, this is a problem for me.

  • Little Jackie Paper 13th Jun '16 - 11:47am

    Bill le Breton – Maybe you can help me – I need a pep-talk.

    I know all the reasons why I should vote REMAIN. I get all the international co-operation stuff, I know that leaving will likely land us with a hard-right tory government and I know the need to be ‘European.’ I get all that.

    But as I look at the EU now, I just don’t think I can bring myself to do it. In its present form the EU is nigh-on indefensible. On refugees, asymmetric migration, the Euro, relations with Russia and Turkey… I just can’t bring myself to say this is something I will actively put a cross in the box for.

    Mr le Breton, with respect, it is not, ‘fear,’ that is the issue here (or at least not in my case). That word seems to have been lobbed about like confetti of late. The problem is that we have an, ‘open agenda,’ with the EU in its vanguard which, quite candidly, is not doing a lot of people any favours. To say as much is not fear – it’s staring me full in the face.

    At best we have a situation where the REMAIN campaign has persuaded just enough people to swallow very hard. At worst LEAVE has not, ‘frightened,’ people rather it has represented them. This has neverendum written all over it.

    But for the here and now, can you give me a pep-talk?

  • Perhaps something else to think about for Remain. We have a refugee situation at the moment, people are fearing for their lives and fleeing to what they hope is safety. Why do Remain insist on the fear campaign, thus generating a flee response, probably to Leave who are giving out a message of hope (as Lib Dems have always used fear tactics, they can’t really blame other parties for causing this).

    @Little Jackie Paper
    How about this for a pep talk, something that remain can’t seem to get their head around.

  • Little Jackie Paper 13th Jun '16 - 12:30pm

    Matt (Bristol) – To my mind it is important to see that the EU is in many ways a SYMPTOM of a wider issue. For 30 plus years politicians of all mainstream parties have strongly pursued what might be called the, ‘open agenda.’

    I’m in no doubt that for those who have been able to make open work for them all this is great. Anyone wanting less open is, viewed through that prism, just a little Englander. But it really, really isn’t that simple. Of course there is more to, ‘open,’ than the EU. But then the EU is very much a symbol of the open agenda.

    I think that to many people the clumsy phrase, ‘taking back control,’ is a shorthand for a less open world. And by that they mean a world where they are not, for example, going to have large influxes in a short space of time.

    In effect it is a wish to have a more reciprocal arrangement with Europe. Indeed, it is the great irony of our politics. What would make the UK like the EU is not less free movement, but more. If a million economically dislocated UK workers could up and head to Lithuania or Slovakia for jobs and in-work welfare tomorrow then everything would be fine.

    It is I think critical to see that the EU is not a left/right political issue. The dividing line here is between those that have seen benefits from open and those that have not. So this is all great if you are a London estate agent; not so great if your job’s just been outsourced to Bulgaria.

    You say, ‘The In campaign needs to demonstrate in emotionally trustworthy terms that the EU gives people more control, confidence and certainty over their lives, not less.’ How exactly are you going to persuade those already facing severe economic instability that more of the same will provide more confidence and certainty. The stark reality is it won’t.

    What will save the EU vision is not more treaty or even reform, but advances in technology. What we have at the moment is an open agenda the is great for some, but lacking in reciprocity for many. It’s not fear or a wish for some mythic control that is the issue per se here. It is how (if) an open world can be more than a form of capitalism that’s great for those with the right sort of capital.

  • Matt (Bristol) 13th Jun '16 - 1:09pm

    LJP – but – if we accept your ‘open agenda’ thesis – leaving the EU will not inherently move us away from that agenda, as it is held in many respects by the leadership of the Conservative party – whether they are ‘in’ or ‘out’ in respect of the EU.

    We could, if we leave, instead see a more risky attempt to negotiate an ‘open’ agenda with partners who would be less sympathetic and have less social institutions in common with us. (ie the US, China or Russia).

    In fact, one of the bodies pressing most for an ‘open’ agenda inside the EU has been our own leadership over several governments of both parties.

    I disagree that control is not the issue – or rather, I feel that accountability is a key part of the issue. but it is the accountability of our own government that is the issue as much as it is the EU.

  • Matt (Bristol) 13th Jun '16 - 1:27pm

    “how (if) an open world can be more than a form of capitalism that’s great for those with the right sort of capital.”

    Well, I would say that is the central question for LibDems in particular to answer, whether or not we leave the EU, but that leaving the EU won’t in itself bring us any closer to answering it, and may well put us considerably back.

  • Bill le Breton 13th Jun '16 - 1:29pm

    LJP I certainly will not. You have always had far too much pep as it is. 🙂

    But I do urge you and everyone else to read Ambrose Evans- Pritchard’s piece above. It gets behind the appallingly negative messages from both campaigns and is a careful process of weighing the balance. The next tens years will be far from easy which ever way we vote on Thursday. That is the truth, surely.

    Leaving could be the start of a process of national reconstruction based on free trade, subsidiarity and a reformation of politics. And international construction as Europe shrugs off its bonds.

    There is actually a majority for this in the Commons – a majority that cannot in the status quo coalesce. Paddy claims that Canning and Castlereigh would be spinning in their graves. I think they have been spinning in their graves for the last 15 years.

    Along with their forerunner, Pitt the Younger, they saved this country (and Europe) from a politics and a political union which, like that of the political project which the EU today has become an institution that, “bleeds the lifeblood of national institutions, but fails to replace them with anything lovable or legitimate at a European level. It draws away charisma, and destroys it. This is how democracies die.”

  • But I do urge you and everyone else to read Ambrose Evans- Pritchard’s piece above.

    I love the ironic joke at the heart of both Ambrose’s piece and the BREXIT campaign, namely, it was the sovereign Parliament at Westminster that gave away it’s supremacy! I don’t see any politician in the BREXIT campaign, saying sorry we got it wrong… Neither do I see any of them making suggestions as to the safeguards that will need to be put in place so that a newly supreme Parliament would be unable to give away it’s supremacy without the explicit says of the UK electorate…

  • Philip Rolle 13th Jun '16 - 6:31pm

    I was taking to a young man today – he had told me three months ago that he had decided to vote Leave. He told me that the majority of his friends – 18 to 25, middle class, in debt… had come out for Leave as well. They had usually given as their reason that they didn’t want the UK to be controlled from Europe.

    I wonder whether the new millennial generation will decide this election? Might they object to their forebears having “given away” their country? They see none of the advantages that we were long ago promised attached to membership. They see only problems. And they perhaps want to kick against those who have seen them in debt through student loans

    If so, is it really wise for Lib Dems to be so trenchantly pro-Remain?

  • @Glenn
    “Face reality, the EU is just not that interesting to a lot of British people.”

    True. The only people who are really interested are those who want out.

    There was a Guardian poll in March which found that only 9% of Lib Dem supporters consider EU membership to be “an issue of great national importance”. That’s a pretty astonishing disconnect between the rank and file and the activists I read on here. Only 15% of Labour voters consider it important, but 40% of Tories and 59% of UKIP voters do.

    I think the game is up. Time to start thinking about the much more important battles ahead. The only thing most people will really miss about the EU is the guarantee on worker’s rights. To be honest, most of these guarantees are modest, in fact they are mostly inferior to the rights our own governments have deigned to give us, but nevertheless it’s important to ensure that they are defended from the Tories after we leave. If Lib Dems, Labour and other left-of-Tory parties cannot work together effectively to defend these rights, I despair for the future.

  • Richard Easter 13th Jun '16 - 8:15pm

    The EU Commission (whether the MEPs do is a different thing) clearly appear to support bankers and multinational corporations and their demands over the needs of ordinary people. Mix that in with anti-immigrant sentiment, and it is no surprise a lot of people actively hate the Commission, which they just see as an utterly unaccountable wing of Goldman Sachs or whoever.

    And the problem is the Commission does indeed behave in this way much of the time, combined with extreme arrogance and contempt for voters, whether it is over the Constitution, Lisbon Treaty or TTIP.

    Many people see it as a dictatorship sending their jobs overseas, whilst flooding their country with migrants. Where as I believe immigration is a good thing, and Europe wide co-operation is also a good thing, it is almost impossible to get this across, when the behaviour of EU elites is often very contemptuous, and more concerned with feathering their own nests and that of the biggest multinationals, than what happens to the ordinary person.

  • @Stuart – “I think the game is up.” – here is hoping :-).

  • In case anyone missed the Spectator debate with Nick Clegg, here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYTJGBBjkGo.

  • jedibeeftrix 13th Jun '16 - 9:44pm

    @ Philip – “I wonder whether the new millennial generation will decide this election? Might they object to their forebears having “given away” their country?”

    I can’t claim to be a new millennial, but when i was a young man I framed it thus:

    I give my consent that you may govern in my name, and assent to be bound by the actions you take in my name as if they were my own.
    However, the authority to govern that you possess in consequence is never to be leased out to a third party, and I will not deem those actions as my own.

  • If Leave win, as I believe they are going to, we will look back on this period as a golden age and wonder why and how we threw it away. Who will be blamed by history? Cameron certainly – David Laws says that he and Clegg warned him repeatedly about trying to appease the Tory right by playing the Referendum card. The dysfunctional Labour Party. The decades of poison promulgated by Murdoch and the rest of the right wing press. But also Mandelson and Blair, for it was their encouragement of large scale immigration, and their failure to ensure that there were transitional agreements when the Eastern European countries joined the EU that lie at the root of today’s antipathy towards the EU. It’s not the economy, “It’s immigration, stupid”, and there is very little that Remain can do to counter the argument that we have to take back control of our borders to halt immigration. Of course, leaving the EU will not achieve that aim, and the possible response of those who believed that it would is one of the reasons I believe we are facing a dark period ahead.

  • @tonyhill
    I don’t think you can absolve the Lib Dems of blame either, they were always keen to play the authoritarian and use XRB cards to try and shut down debate on immigration, rather than address any concerns.

  • Philip Rolle 13th Jun '16 - 11:48pm

    If Leave win, how can we trust any of you Remainers to represent us in Parliament or on the local council ever again. You have said that the country will go to hell in a handcart and so clearly may do everything needed to expedite that and prove yourselves to be correct.

    Just back off. And that includes Tim “10 days to save Britain” Farron.

  • @Philip Rolle
    Tbf, I think they said the same about joining the Euro, but they didn’t try to destroy everything.

  • @Tony Hill Thank you Tony. This historical intellectual stuff (Junker = Napoleon) thank goodness good old Pitt saved England’s aristocracy, bscures the simple issue. Overwhelming evidence points to economic damage, loss of jobs, and a nation in some form of recession in the hands of a even more right wing government. It is TORY BREXIT for goodness sake

  • Thank you Mark.
    After sitting on the fence until this week, I appreciate any useful message to help me to consolidate my reasons for finally deciding to vote ‘remain’.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jun '16 - 11:31am

    Phillip Rolle

    They had usually given as their reason that they didn’t want the UK to be controlled from Europe.

    If only we were. Then perhaps like the rest of Europe we wouldn’t have sky high student tuition fees, and much else. If we are “controlled from Europe” as the Brexiteers suggest, how come almost all political discussion in this country is on things which are purely Westminster’s responsibility? The Brexiteers give loads of hand-waving about being “controlled by Europe”, but little in the way of concrete example, and when they do give concrete examples they are often wrong, such as B.Johnson’s claims about bananas.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jun '16 - 11:38am


    This historical intellectual stuff (Junker = Napoleon) thank goodness good old Pitt saved England’s aristocracy, obscures the simple issue.

    Indeed. This idea that Britain is still like it was decades or centuries ago, that the Brexiteers keep pushing with the hint that somehow Brexit will return us to a golden age is utter nonsense – and they know it, as those funding and running Brexit are those who smashed Britain and Britain’s old culture as it used to exist, by handing control of our country to the global super-elite.

    In the past whatever might have been said about aristocrats and businessmen who ran things, of course they were British and committed to Britain. It isn’t like that now. So much of it has been sold to people who live in tax havens, have no more commitment to this country than to anywhere else, and who are happy to close down British business if it doesn’t make them a profit. And the Brexiteers are the extreme economic right-wingers who pushed our country down that path.

  • From the article: “immigrants stimulate the economy”

    This is an example of a common argument, namely, ‘X is good for the economy, therefore we need more X’

    It is of course nonsense – but very useful nonsense for some since ‘the economy’ in this context is simply a proxy for those who own and control the economy. It tells us nothing about the benefit to the vast majority of the population, yet it’s taken as clinching any argument and ending any debate. It amounts to the establishment saying, “This is good for us, so suck it up peasants” or, as Warren Buffet, one of the world’s richest men memorably observed, “There is class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning”.

    From the POV of the 99% things look far less rosy. In the specific case of mass immigration for it to be a good thing you have to first persuade yourself that (a) the usual rules of supply and demand don’t apply to housing, (b) ditto for jobs, (c) that successive governments’ failure to organise proper training is entirely unconnected with their ability to avoid doing do by simply importing people, (d) that’s it’s OK to blame the victims of that failure and that they should be grateful for an insecure minimum wage job, (e) that a ‘contributions surplus’ by those primarily in their 20s tells us anything useful about long term affordability of this approach (f) that any idea of sustainability no longer matters.

    In other words, those who oppose the EU may well do so on entirely logical grounds based on the impact on their personal economy. Westminster Villagers (and their DC cousins) with their heads in the clouds and neoliberal notions simply don’t get this. Hence the revolt against the establishment represented in different ways by Sanders, Trump and Brexit.

  • Bill le Breton (first comment) – That’s a great essay by AE-P. The out-of-control juggernaut that is the Commission is betraying the hopes of a generation by it’s pig-headed drive to ‘ever-greater union’ based on a technocratic model, not a democratic one and worse, by its flouting of democratic and constitutional controls.

    What a tragedy that the Tories and the Lib Dems, who ought to know better, have gone along with UKIP’s ‘Little Englander’ approach of framing this as Britain vs. Europe.

    It’s actually, democratic reformers in all EU countries vs. a completely out-of-touch establishment (that is, out-of-touch to the people but not to corporate lobbyists). Judging by the opinion polls in other EU countries a sensible reform proposal would have a good chance of gaining traction. Unfortunately, the Lib Dems are firmly in the establishment camp for reasons that entirely escape me. Anyone?

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