Memo to pro-EU campaigners: Get out the millennial vote if you want to win

Written by Geoff Beattie is an executive director at APCO Worldwide and a former GMTV producer. on 17 February 2016 in Diary
It’s the under-30s who will have to live with the consequences of the EU referendum – not Bill Cash, Nigel Farage or Liam Fox.

Whatever result comes from David Cameron’s latest round of negotiations with EU leaders this week, it’s pretty clear that campaigners to keep the UK in the European club need to look elsewhere for a winning strategy.

The shock YouGov/Times poll earlier this month – showing a nine point lead for ‘Leave’ - was published just after the PM concluded his preliminary negotiations with EU President Tusk. By a big majority, the deal was voted a failure, even though its main features were shown to be popular with voters.

With the current mood of our EU partners currently seeming very sour indeed, it seems very unlikely that the original agreement will be an improvement – from a UK government perspective. Therefore using whatever watered down version finally emerges as the basis for a successful campaign to remain in the EU looks close to suicidal at this point.

Given this gloomy scenario, new thinking is urgently required about how to secure a good majority in the June referendum, one that does not leave the bitter aftertaste and sense of betrayal which has occurred in Scotland since the 2014 referendum on independence.

One potentially winning strategy can clearly be found in the dark recesses of that YouGov/Times poll:

Build a creative campaign which is aimed at persuading young people to get out and vote in this referendum.

The figures are unmistakeable: it’s the overwhelming majority of younger voters who want to stay in the EU. If the vote were held tomorrow (excluding don’t knows), 69% of 18-24s would vote to remain, while 61% of 25-39s would do the same. Cross that age boundary, and the figures are almost exactly reversed. Some 63% of 40-59 year olds would choose to leave, rising to 69% for those over 60.

The difference couldn’t be clearer. Younger Britons, born and brought up in the European Union, are at total odds with their parents’ generation, particularly those who can remember a time before we joined in 1972.

The anti-EU attitudes of older voters are likely to be stubbornly held and difficult to change. It must surely make sense to focus on getting younger people to cast their ballots to stay. It could well make the difference between a comfortable win and a narrow defeat for the pro-EU side

In particular, I believe there is the need for a new creative campaign which is aimed at winning over the votes of the millennial generation – those who came of age at the turn of the century. The polling clearly shows that they are the most enthusiastic about the UK remaining in the EU. But as any brand marketer will tell you, they are a hard bunch to reach and even harder to motivate, regardless of what’s at stake.

So what are the ground rules for a pro-EU campaign aimed at millennials? Let me offer some suggestions to get the conversation started.

1. It shouldn’t look anything like a traditional political campaign. This is a generation that is largely turned off by politicians and their messages. They don’t care about Westminster gossip, attacking the ‘Leave’ campaign, or which prominent union leader supports the EU. Above all, they don’t respond to anything that looks like political propaganda or spin.

2. For precisely these reasons, the campaign should not be managed by political operatives. We need to take advantage of the fact that the UK – London in particular – has some of the finest creative commercial talent in the world, people who spend huge client budgets trying to reach exactly those millennials who support EU membership. Let’s get together a coalition of those talents – brand strategists, media planners, digital gurus, copy writers and film makers – to figure out what this campaign should look like.

3. Make it positive, funny, and happy. Which brand has succeeded in winning over millennial audiences by ‘going negative’ or the brand equivalent of ‘Project Fear’? I can’t think of one. Even though the No campaign scraped over the line, we know what long-term damage negative messaging has done in Scotland, especially amongst younger audiences. When you think about how the EU has dramatically expanded life and work horizons for this generation, there is so much to be positive about. We have seen precious little of that so far, I’m afraid.

4. Give millennial voters a sense of ownership in this referendum. In one sense, this is their vote. It’s the under 30s who will have to live with the consequences for most of their lives, not Bill Cash, Nigel Farage or Liam Fox. A clever campaign will give young voters a sense of empowerment and motivation to take control of their own destinies by voting in June.

5. Embrace spontaneity and diversity. Invite people to launch their personal campaigns on social media. This is an audience that will respond to one clever post on Facebook or YouTube from a peer far more positively than anything which has the tag ‘official’ on it.

The polling data is very clear. This referendum will be won if enough younger voters turn out and register their support for our EU membership. It’s time to unlock the potential of that constituency, before it’s too late. The only question is, who will pay for this kind of campaign?


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