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Dominic Cummings in Downing Street
23 Sep, 2019

What we should learn

Dominic Cummings was the mastermind of the Leave campaign and is now a senior advisor to Boris Johnson in Downing Street. Both before and after the 2016 campaign Cummings wrote lengthy blogs. London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg read through the blogs again to pick out the key points. You can see his annotated extracts split into: the purpose of Brexit; campaign strategy; and practical campaigning.

This blog draws out the lessons. The key lesson is that the Leave campaign was all about Europe: £350m and Turkey were not domestic issues but methods of making the EU real to people and thus galvanising people to move from “opposed to EU membership but don’t really care” to “Leave!”. We need to make the campaign about the EU and to find a way to make the positive aspects of the EU real.


The main benefit of the arrival of Dominic Cummings to Boris Johnson's staff is that Leavers now have no excuse. What Cummings cannot deliver by way of Brexit cannot be delivered by anyone - though I believe that Farage is bringing his rival Cummings into the betrayal narrative. He is a brilliant organiser of campaigns and an unscrupulous individual. We see that in some of his pronouncements that are being leaked out of Downing Street.

It would be a mistake to dismiss him. He has many ideas that are interesting. Even when wrong they are often wrong in interesting ways (more or less a definition of an expert). 

He writes a lot about decision making and management.  However, he is mesmerised by the data-driven hard sciences and unconventional military organisation - both of which are rather old-fashioned sources for management of civil society. Physical systems are much simpler than biological leave alone social systems. Social sciences like economics have moved on from the attempt to emulate the hard sciences' reliance on hard data - which in social science rarely are hard - to emphasise for example understanding people via behavioural economics. His methods work for a destructive campaign, like Brexit; but not for creation, not if you respect the agency of individuals. For sure we should use data, research and evaluations more in social policy. But their application requires a more tolerant, less certain, more open, less aggressive approach than Cummings deploys.  

I do not know what he is like in person. But his written manner with its contempt for almost everyone and every institution rejects any idea of taking people with him. Building structures requires the consent and engagement of the citizens. 


Cummings' approach to the referendum campaign

The overarching need was to prevent a relapse into protectionism. That required a reduction in immigration and human rights law. Brexit would lead the EU to rethink their approach. 

Brexit was about a new world order. The EU would fall apart, the UK's governance would be revolutionised, all other countries would agree with Cummings'/ the UK's plan for the world to adopt a new way of managing international co-operation, and the UN would be replaced by a new Global Organisation for Security and Trade

That part of the plan is not going so well.  Beyond Brexit, Cummings never revealed a path for bringing it about. Curiously for someone so contemptuous of others' management skills he does not refer to any risk analysis he conducted. What if the EU does not collapse? What if the USA and China move to nationalism/ protectionism rather than the co-operative world order he desires? What if the world does not accept Cummings'/ the UK's leadership on how the global architecture should be structured? Would the UK still be better off outside the EU?

So we see in Cummings a dreamer - but fundamentally a destroyer. That's fine. Society needs destroyers to shake things up. Think of Schumpeter's idea of creative destruction. But the destruction needs to take place within a context where new things are built. The market economy destroys old firms and products when new better ones emerge. Sure, Brexit is full of potential: yes, true, we could write all our own laws. But the Brexit advocates have been unable to put forward a coherent or meaningful vision of what the purpose of Brexit is, what Brexit Britain would look like, why it would be better.

So Brexit is like setting fire to your home on the ground that the world could then develop a better model for housing. It could. But it might not. And in any event you'll be shivering in the rain. 

Of course Cummings' view of the post-Brexit future was only one of many. And in a sense it was irrelevant. Cummings dismissed the idea that Leave should set out a Brexit plan for two reasons. First the various Brexit factions had never yet agreed a way forward and would not do so for the referendum. Second, the electorate did not know or care about how the EU or international relations worked. 

So he ran an entirely cynical campaign focused on £350m/ NHS and Turkey/ EU army to highlight the costs and risks of staying in the EU, building on the underlying discontent that people had with the EU which had been raised by the financial, Euro and migration crises and the hostility to UK immigration.

Finally, ethics was not a strong point. If campaign finance rules meant that there had to be a choice, then "Obviously we did" "the right thing for the campaign and risk[ed] being judged to have broken the law" (Cummings blog of January 2017).  His blogs refer to his resentment at civil servants telling Ministers that proposals were unlawful.


Lessons for our campaign

Cummings is a campaigning genius. But we have to aim off from his lessons. We are not selling a dream but membership of a working institution. Nor may we be as cynical as Cummings. The electorate has moved on. Voters have become entrenched as Remainers and Leavers, which creates both opportunities and problems. Immigration has gone down the public agenda; resentment at the failure to implement Brexit has gone up, as has anger at the failure to address domestic issues "the burning injustices". 

A positive pro-EU campaign - but related to daily life. We must not misunderstand the 2016 Leave campaign. It was not about the NHS or immigration. It really was about the EU. The campaign's genius consisted of: 

  • taking the EU (something that people were opposed to, but neither knew nor cared about) and making it real and urgent by applying it to two issues that people did care about: NHS and immigration; and
  • finding from the electorate themselves a single over-arching slogan that unified the campaign's themes, reflected people's desires and made them feel good about their vote. 

So we should not campaign on a platform of domestic reform - that misses the point, and we have no authority to deliver. EU reform will land only with the tiny numbers that know and care about EU structures and policy (and anyway we cannot deliver). Our campaign needs to be positive, pro-EU to be consistent with our values and to address the issue on the table. Our campaigning task is to find the policies and slogans that will make the benefits of EU membership real to people in their daily lives. It is an uphill task because most people are Eurosceptic to a degree.

Is it all about jobs and incomes?  For Cummings in 2016 the key group were those who wanted Out but could not afford it or thought it too risky. I am not sure that category is as important now as it was then. We know that the small number of Leave to Remain switchers have also switched their views on the economics of Brexit; what we do not know is the direction of causality. I would be nervous about staking too much on Brexit harms and risks. It did not work last time. Leavers will say that the short term effects of the referendum were not as forecast (it's more complicated than that). It will not be a victory worth having if it is won with sullen and resentful Remain votes by people who really wish to Leave. Remainers always cared more about trade than did Leavers. And anyway we have become "Remainers" and "Leavers" in our identities and are less likely to think with our wallets. So we have to address identity more than incomes

The purpose of Brexit. An essential though understated part of Cummings' campaign was to allow everyone to project onto Brexit whatever they wanted. That advantage disappears in the referendum on the terms - though Leavers will try to recreate it. We need to make sure that the referendum debate is tied to the option(s) on the ballot paper. And while voters may not care either way for the content of the plan(s), we need to make clear to them that the time for dreams and ideals is over. It is a choice between options which actually exist, with all their flaws and compromises.

Go Global/ Global Britain. The ERG Conservative MPs wanted to run the campaign under the slogan "Go Global", ie free trade. Cummings found that went down badly with the electorate. The ERG are important in the formulation of Brexit policy and "Global Britain" is part of Boris Johnson's vision. We should see whether that goes down as badly with voters as "Go Global" had and whether we can use it against them. 

The role of business? Cummings argued that business was actually anti-EU, even if the pro-business lobbies were pro-EU. Currently business lobbies are pro-Brexit, just seeking a deal. But that might change in a referendum. Remainers tend to assume that business is overwhelming pro-Remain, even if businesses keep quiet out of a desire to respect the referendum or avoid upsetting customers and workers. We need to find out accurately whether business is actually pro or anti Brexit. To the extent that it is pro-Brexit, we should find out whether their hostility to the EU is well-founded. Does business know whether regulations they see as burdensome come from the EU or the UK? Do they have a valid counter-factual (ie would the politics allow deregulation after Brexit)? Depending on what we learned there might be a need for a campaign to educate business. 

There is also a lesson for local campaign groups. Many voters would trust local business people over national figures. So one task for a campaign group is to build up a network of local businesses who would be willing to go public with a pro-Remain message.

Democracy/ Tell them again. Cummings' view was that a second referendum would not be about Europe but about the political class, a populist revolt. So we would need to make sure we had straight our arguments about the legitimacy of the 2020 referendum, the action sincerely taken by the political class to implement Brexit, Brussels is not punishing the UK &c. We can argue that Brexit would not mean the UK writing all its own laws in total isolation since we would still continue to be part of many international organisations and would have to follow their rules. We could show that it was the attempt to deal with Brexit that had prevented action on real issues that the electorate care about - and that Brexit would crowd out such action for years to come.

Practical campaigning. Lessons include: 

  • A campaign has very little time, so if you have not started already then start now. 
  • The campaign suffered from rivalries and tensions with grassroots and national bodies - so we need to ensure that we have transparent governance to prevent and handle that. 
  • The central value of a campaign has to be learning. The top-down campaign model of a political party will not work in a referendum campaign. Instead, the campaign needs to be open to learning from the grassroots, from outsiders and, especially, from data. 
  • The Leave campaign used hard and soft data from social media testing, opinion polls and focus group and analysed it rigorously; they then applied the lessons from the data. They rigorously prioritised when and where they spent their money. 



We can learn from the successes of the Leave campaign if we are careful about how to apply them to our present concerns. I put forward ideas but they need to be tested rigorously for intellectual coherence and then to see what actually lands with the public. Especially the wording of messages cannot be designed without listening to persuadable voters and testing. But we must always ensure that what we say is true to our values, even if it lands badly.

The failure of the Brexit campaign to articulate and obtain support for a shared vision of the future is at the root of the divisions we have in Britain today. The creation of a team in 10 Downing Street whose concern is only with getting Brexit over the line by any means and with no publicly articulated explanation of what is to follow will only harm the UK. It hugely increases the need to win hearts and minds for staying in the European Project with its promise of peaceful co-operation to overcome common challenges and realise the opportunities of the future. 

Dominic Cummings is keen on quoting Thucydides. So, let's follow him in that: "Hatred also is short lived; but that which makes the splendour of the present and the glory of the future remains forever unforgotten".

And if you are seriously short of hope, then note that in June 2019 Cummings wrote: “A second referendum in 2020 is quite possible”.




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