The importance of the frame when debating Brexit

This piece arises out of a comment I made on Facebook that one of Lib Dem Voice’s founding editors asked me to write up as an article for LDV.

I have given training on debate and hustings skills to candidates at the party conference and there are a couple of rules to help you in that I think Remainers and Liberals are continuing to paying insufficient heed to in Brexit related debates.  This was brought home to me while watching recent episodes of Question Time and similar programmes.

The first rule is framing. In a debate, the success of what you have to say (measured by whether people will feel they agree, and whether they will do the thing you want them to do, e.g. vote a certain way) is often determined by the way an answer is framed.

A frame is way of thinking about things. A point of view, if you like. Words evoke frames. A classic example is “tax cuts” versus “tax relief”. They are the same thing. But “relief” sounds like the curing of an affliction, and an affliction usually has a victim and a cause of the affliction (goodies and baddies).

Another example is “gay marriage” versus “equal marriage” both are used to mean same sex couples being able to marry but they can evoke different thoughts about the subject.

To win a debate (whether a hustings, or an election campaign as a whole) it helps to use your frame, not your opponents’ frame.

Frames are not word games.  They are moral values that we inject into what we say politically.

If you want to understand more about framing, read this article by George Lakoff.

The second thing is time. In a debate you only have limited time to make your point. On a programme like Question Time it is the limited time the chair and audience are willing to give you before wanting to hear from the next person. That means make your best point your first point and do it quick.

The £50 billion example

I think pro-Europeans are playing to the wrong frame too often. The specific issue that triggered my comment on Facebook was how Remainers on news programmes dealt with “will we have to pay £50 billion on leaving?”

Quite often they got into explaining why we might have to and why this is not unfair.  Brexiteers then run down the clock with “it’s a disgrace, we’ve paid enough, we just need to get out.”

The problem with this, and why they get a lot more applause, it that they look strong and they’re going to try, and you look like you’re surrendering and not even going to try.

The challenge frame

This is what I suggest you do instead: frame it as a challenge.

“Boris and that lot said we wouldn’t have to pay a penny. They told you to vote Leave saying we wouldn’t be worse off. Now they have the chance to prove it.”

“Let’s see if they negotiate an exit deal where we don’t pay a penny let alone £50 billion. If they don’t we will all know we can’t rely on the things they say.”

And link it to the future —

“We will know never to trust them again. We will have to decide if we want an exit if it is so different to what they promised.”

The flexibility of the challenge frame

You can use this frame on just about any aspect of Brexit.

I have quickly created this debate matrix.  In the top line is the frame. In the columns are some examples to flesh the frame out.  You can probably think of more.

“They promise X would/not happen” “They lied / were wrong. You can’t trust them.” “We deserve better”
£350m per week for the NHS  That bus. We deserve a vote on the exit deal
Turkey joining the EU   Listen to young people who will have to deal with the consequences for longer
Immigration reducing a lot   Brexit should not happen if this is what it is going to mean
Your family’s living standards getting better not worse    
No jobs lost    
Less costs for business not more costs    
 Not paying into the EU budget    


Conservatives and Leavers understand framing and time very well.  It is one reason they won the referendum and other debates in recent years (the AV referendum is a case in point).

We need to stop walking into failure again and again by accepting their frames.



* Antony Hook was #2 on the South East European list in 2014, is the English Party's representative on the Federal Executive and produces this sites EU Referendum Roundup.

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  • I admit I’m a leave voter, but do you not think the main problem for Remain is that the vote was lost and really this is a bit like endlessly going over who said what in divorce proceeding when the papers have been served and your soon to be ex-partner is redecorating . However, I do understand it as a way of tapping into a niche vote that may help the Lib Dems recover some lost ground.

  • Antony’s rehearsal of the framing argument (and the Lakoff link) is very welcome and an inspiration to anti-Br…t supporters to get off their knees. I still feel that the B word skews the arguments!

  • Glenn,
    “do you not think the main problem for Remain is that the vote was lost and really this is a bit like endlessly going over who said what in divorce proceeding when the papers have been served and your soon to be ex-partner is redecorating”

    Quite the opposite, I think not enough reflection is done on why arguments were lost and too much tine since has been spent in an echo chamber claiming that the opinions have changed and if there were just a second ref. then it would go the other way. In truth I believe a majority people could still be persuaded the Remain position is best, but that will take time (part of which is putting the govt under pressure to deliver the promises its members made). The way it is done needs to be done well (which appears to be what this is about), but it has to be done.

    This article is good in terms of some positive steps in the tactical approaches in a debate (which are important) however they over look the negative approaches that have to be stopped and doesn’t cover the longer term strategic actions that are needed.

    As for whether Remain should now “shut up” in case they look bitter the answer is obviously not. The point has to be made over and over that the ministers responsible for the negotiations gave a very rosy impression to the public during the referendum campaign now they need to be deliver.

    If a builder quotes you to build a beautiful large new extension to your house from local stone and then then starts constructing some tiny ramshackle lean-to out of rotting wood, I suggestion you would be saying “oi, that wasn’t what you promised” and doing so loudly and regularly until they started to deliver what was promised.

  • Glen,

    Your metaphor is a great example of using a frame for a pro-Brexit point of view.

  • Seconding Marks point above, there needs to be a serious focus on persuading people of Liberal ideas, the current trend looks a lot like picking something we believe and chasing around after a new much of potential supporters who are really passionate about that one issue.

    Better to bring others over to your position is much better than trying to pick up one group and drop another. It is the “common ground” strategy (diff from the centre ground strategy) that we appear to be really averse to using, though the response of Bill Le Britton straight after the vote did show some people in the party get what it involves.

  • Surely the sensible strategy for a Small Party is to get the people who are closest to us to vote for us ? Once we have exhausted the 48% then we can get to work on the 52%.

  • paul barker

    “Surely the sensible strategy for a Small Party is to get the people who are closest to us to vote for us ? Once we have exhausted the 48% then we can get to work on the 52%.”

    Well that logic applies for a single issue party, I hope most LibDems don’t see them selves as simply “the EU party” now. Liberal values are more than just membership of a Supranational body. My belief in the balance of benefits of membership are based upon my belief remaining in is the best way to achieve liberal goals not just a blind love for an institution.

    There will be many people holding strong liberal views who voted leave, some will want a soft Brexit some may have a harder line on the EU but based upon a different assessment of the risks and rewards to the one I make. Neither of these groups should be considered ‘far from us’ and if they are that perhaps says more about us than them?

    The point of a common ground strategy is that you recognise each party has particular values that it prioritises and that almost everyone values those values, our job is to explain to people why our values are the ones that need to be prioritised now and why we are able to deliver. This is a great opotunity now as other parties appear to be abandoning their previous attempts to claim the “liberal” label, leaving us to seize it and explain why it should be a priority for people right now.

  • Sue Sutherland 13th Apr '17 - 12:31pm

    A very thought provoking post.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Apr '17 - 1:38pm

    Antony does well here, but it is the comments by Mark and psi after him that really make us see things are going both too far and not far enough!

    Too far in the way of obsessing about Brexit.

    Not far enough in so many other ways and thus not picking up greater support.

    This is not a single issue party.No new party members are only interested in the EU, if they are they are unlike any party activists seen before.

    Even UKIP obsessives have ideas on other issues.The same is obviously true of our new members.

    We need to broaden our appeal.

  • If I was going to fight Brexit I would steer clear of the self congratulatory stuff about demographics and try to make being pro EU look ordinary. Maybe, concentrate on families, kids and creating an emotional feel-good swell. Coz, at the moment your problem is that being pro-EU has been co-opted by journalists presenting it like missionary work, where really you have tame the heathens through fear and condemnation of tribal customs . It’s like advertising, you attract people by making them feel positive, not by telling them off.

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Apr '17 - 3:53pm

    The challenge frame is better than simply agreeing to the £50 billion without challenge but I would say I think we need to try to pay as little as possible as an exit fee, but there is going to have to be a compromise.

    We need to get tougher in the negotiations and be prepared to walk away from a very bad deal. Otherwise we may as well not bother negotiating and just tell the EU to send us the terms, which is electoral suicide.

  • Peter Watson 13th Apr '17 - 4:46pm

    @Cllr Mark Wright “I don’t really think the party has been that interested in converting people from the Leave argument.”
    For me that has been the biggest disappointment of the reaction to the result of the EU referendum by Lib Dems in particular and by “Remainers” in general. The Remain campaign was dismal, all about opposing Brexit but offering little reason to vote for the EU. But nothing has been learnt from the outcome and the same negative approach persists, repeating a failed strategy.

  • Peter Watson 13th Apr '17 - 4:53pm

    @Martin “All they had to do, and in interview after interview did do, was to refuse to admit that the figure was false or misleading and little else was discussed, but the Brexiters had achieved the publicity that they wanted.”
    Actually, in many interviews, senior Brexiters were challenged on the misleading headline figure and did attempt to explain that this was a “gross” figure and that the “nett” figure was more like £250 million per week, but the Remain campaign seemed determined (and still does) to bang on about the £350 million lie without explaining why £250 million was/is a good investment. Another example of how those of us voting to remain in the EU were let down by a dismal and negative campaign.

  • Glenn – 48% isnt a niche. If the Brexiteers could grasp that perhaps relations would be more cordial.

  • Alistair,
    But most of the 48% of Remain voters have moved on and have accepted leaving the EU. The Lib Dems are still stuck at around 10% to 12% and I’m Lib Dem voter. So there are some Leave voters amongst even that figure. The point I’m making is that the anti Brexit stance is not a magic electoral bullet with a built in number of votes. Amongst that 48 percent are Labour voters, Conservative voters, Greens and the A political. Plus Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists. Very few amongst this diverse group will only vote on the issue of the EU.

  • Glenn – Moved on? Like students immediately moved on when Clegg went back on his Student loans pledge? Brexit is Student Loans multiplied by a factor of a billion. It may be a slow burn but there are millions upon millions adversely affected by Brexit, support for the Lib Dems is low because Clegg torched the credibility of the Lib Dems. There are anti immigrant stories in the press practically every day. Brexit has barely even started yet.

  • Alistair
    Elections are not fought on single issues. I certainly would not vote for UKIP and I voted leave. To be honest, to a lot of people membership of the EU is not the a big seething issue most people. If remain had won, I would just have had a bit of a moan , thought maybe next time and then got on with other things.

  • Graham Evans 13th Apr '17 - 9:32pm

    Elsewhere Mark Pack has stressed the importance of our building a bigger core vote. We are not be a single issue party but neither is the SNP. However what is unique about the SNP is their commitment to independence and this represents their core vote, while the unionist vote is divided among two and a half other parties. Our opposition to Brexit now represents our USP in England and Wales, and this is where our core vote will lie in the short to medium term. Like the SNP in Scotland, for other policy reasons we may also attract the support of voters who do not favour our USP. However we should not dilute our USP, even if doing so involves losing the support whose belief in liberalism is so shallow that they are prepared instead to turn to the Tory or Labour parties.

  • Brexit is not a single issue in any normal sense. It is cultural, financial, legal, it concerns economics but it also concerns our identity as a nation which may literally fragment within a generation. It is far far more important than how many MPs and Councillors the Lib Dems can gain. We may have 50 years of stagnation. As a parent Britain is becoming a place I no longer wish to raise my children – a basket case of vulture capitalists and asset strippers and little Englanders. All we have heard for the last year is how London is a special case, the City is a special case, the car Industry is a special case. What isnt a special case? Westminster is completely detached from the rest of the country. They dont know how to manage this change. They have made many promises they cant keep. There is no way that thinking people will just move on. Some will move away. The only question is how rapid the decline will be before we get politicians that can lead and chart a sensible course. MPs are quitting now as Parliament is so irrelevant. It isnt a single issue.

  • Alistair,
    This is pointless, you’re emoting and confusing how you feel with how everyone feels Plus you seem think you can see into the future.

  • Glenn – neither of us speak for everyone. I certainly dont claim to. The vote was 52 – 48. The pound has tanked – that is a cold hard fact. Noone can explain to me how new trade with remote places like New Zealand is going to replace and exceed trade with Europe on our door step. Brexit is simply a large damage limitation exercise. Tell me one thing that you personally are likely to gain from it? One European regulation you can finally escape from? Brexiteers never can explain these things in any detail, the more honest ones just express a desire to see less immigration. Well – that may happen if the economy is sufficiently bad.

  • Antony, while I appreciate that this was not the point you were aiming for:

    Framing gay marriage as equal marriage might make it sound nicer for the people it benefits, but for the trans people who were shafted by it, it’s a double whammy. Not only were they shafted by the legislation, but they are considered less-than-people by those who insist that gay marriage is equal marriage even though it took rights AWAY from them.

    It’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that what looks like a pretty frame to some can be really ugly to others.

  • Zoe O'connell 14th Apr '17 - 11:55am

    Going into more detail on Jennie’s comment above… use of the term “Equal Marriage” was an own goal for the party during the coalition and did a lot of damage that we are still trying to fix. Any political benefit we could have reaped from having passed same-sex marriage was lost as a result, and it serves as a good example of why “framing” a topic without thinking about it carefully is dangerous.

    A brief(ish) bit of history: The various campaigns for Equal Marriage were (And in some quarters, remain!) something that has been in existence for some time. There were many people involved from across the LGBTQ+ community, not just LG folk. In fact, many aspects of the LG community were rather late to the party and a disproportionate number of BTQ+ people had been involved in the campaign, at least in the decade or so running up to the bill being passed. In the run up to them publication of the legislation, everyone involved was enthusiastic. But then various less-than-equal aspects became clear – lack of continuity of trans marriage, the imposition of the Spousal Veto on trans people and problems with pension rights were three areas that stick in my mind, but there were more. We made an efforts to fix much of this – amendments in committee during it’s passage through the Commons and also during debate in the Lords. Unfortunately, it became obvious that LG(b) organisations had little interest in helping out with these areas and in a couple of cases tried to block them – worried that adding rights beyond the simple same-sex marriage would derail passage of the bill. At least one major LG(b) organisation that had spoken out against equal marriage at all a couple of years ago was prominent in this – many people were more than a little annoyed at this.


  • Zoe O'connell 14th Apr '17 - 11:55am

    …After all that, the Marriage (Same Sex-Couples) Act passed, largely unamended. Despite the actions of LG(b) organisations in pushing it through in it’s current form, those against it didn’t try to block it. In hindsight, this was a mistake.

    Then came a slew of publicity from politicians, loudly celebrating the passage of “equal marriage”. This killed continuing campaigns dead, because anyone speaking to the media or political stakeholders we were met with confusion. “We already passed this, why do we need to do more?” That left us unable to differentiate ourselves from the Tories when it came to equality.

    Of course, the Conservative Party was quite happy to run with any positive publicity they could get as they had a poor public perception when it came to gay rights. Liberals are more discerning, which put us in an awkward spot. None of the campaign material produced by LDHQ from 2013 to 2015 could be used by LGBT+ Liberal Democrats as the term was undermining our continuing campaigns, and was being met with objections from many members of the community. Objections by LGBT+ LibDems to use of the term, and the problems it was causing in continuing to campaign, were ignored – because of “framing”. Many even started thinking we had actually delivered Equal Marriage and this mindset resulted in a proposed LGBT+ mini-manifesto produced by HQ being scrapped less than 24 hours before publication due to incendiary language.

    It had already cost us in terms of members and activists to pass the bill, as some had been unable to reconcile strongly held religious beliefs with support for same-sex marriage. Now it was costing us amongst LGBT+ communities as well. The LibDem vote amongst LGBT people in the 2015 general election collapsed. In 2010, it had been well over 50% – by most accounts, in 2015 it was less than 2%.

    And yet, as recently as last month, the party was still putting out press releases trumpeting the success of Equal Marriage.

  • nigel hunter 14th Apr '17 - 12:03pm

    When you join a club you pay the fee to get the clubs benefits. When you leave the club those benefits are lost. You then have to search round for another club. This can then take time with no guarantee that the benefits are the same as the club you have just left. Are you willing to be worse off?
    Could this be a good frame question,answer?

  • Alistair,
    What I think Britain gains is a focus on a more internalised form of politics, a sort of localism. The pond has tanked before when we were in the Common market. Inflation was much higher on joining the common market (reaching up to 25% in 1976). It was much higher in the 1980s (over 15%) and was higher on the formation of the EU in 1993 (over 10%). As far as I can see being in the EU has stopped non of the things you’re complaining about from happening and has actually increased them .
    I just think it’s an inflated layer of pointless external pseudo government that has mostly symbolic meaning for its supporters based on nothing it actually does. Coz really it’s just a bunch lobby groups with a flag and an anthem.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Apr '17 - 2:54pm

    Jennie and Zoe , very fascinating eye-opening knowledge and information.

    Do you think the collapse in the LGBT vote can , for our party , more likely be attributed to the general centre left of the electorate desertion due to rightward drift , rather than the nuanced and detailed awareness you both have and shared here, on same sex marriage?

    We must rectify the legislative faults and re-engage obviously sympathetic and ex-voters.

  • Thanks Zoe. A recognition that framing can be a double edged sword (to mix metaphors slightly) is definitely necessary.

  • Peter Watson 14th Apr '17 - 7:02pm

    @Andrew Hickey “That’s an inevitability in that the referendum was between keeping what we already had and getting rid of it.”
    The Remain campaign chose to ignore some pretty obvious implications of that. Everybody knew what Remain meant: the status quo. And that suited some people more than others.
    Using (abusing?) your analogy, the matches were handed over to people who turned out not to like the house much. Perhaps they felt they’d been left in a damp basement and forgotten about by those upstairs, believing that things couldn’t get much worse and might even get better with a bit of warmth from a burning house. Maybe this could have been avoided by acknowledging some of the problems and fixing them up with a bit of home improvement, and demonstrating that it’s a nice house in a good neighbourhood rather than simply saying it’s cold outside.

  • Lorenzo: a little from column A, a little from column B.

  • Tony Dawson 15th Apr '17 - 2:57pm

    The big issue is not about the balance of those who voted each way. The big issue is the balance of those who should have been allowed to vote.

    Remember that, in law, it was an advisory referendum. That being the case, one wonders what the legal basis for proceeding with that referendum without including within the franchise lawful and established long-term residents from EC countries – and acting on the results as if they were definitive.

    It is my understanding that EC residents living in Scotland were permitted a vote in what was a BINDING referendum concerning secession. SO, under what right, did the UK government exclude the EC residents’ views from its considerations before invoking Article 50? Surely, this is a matter for the supreme court every bit as pressing as the issue which was taken there previously? It is absolutely bizarre that any Commonwealth citizen straight off the plane from Karachi or Montreal was able to register and vote in the EU referendum within weeks of landing on UK soil while a German or Pole who had been here living and paying tax for over 10 years could not do so.

  • Zoe O'connell 16th Apr '17 - 8:33am

    Lorenzo: I suspect 90%+ of LGBT voters are unaware of the nuance, as you suggest. It did demotivate LGBT activists and make it very hard to do any LGBT campaigning, however, because we couldn’t use any HQ-produced material. The pink media were also aware of the nuance, and problems over it certainly affected the attitudes of at least some journalists.

    Same sort of thing happens outside of LGBT politics, of course – 90% of voters probably don’t know much about secret courts but it really caused us problems amongst activists and those politically aware!

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