Liberal Democrat MP Lorley Burt walks on stage wearing a Nigel Farage mask at the party's spring conference in York. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Clegg and Farage need to reach beyond their bases

The average British voter is not convinced by the case for the EU, nor persuaded that we would be better off out.

Both Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage should be able to profit from their two-legged encounter, which kicks off this evening, but the event will also highlight the challenges which both parties face in winning this argument with the British public as a whole. For Ukip, the event is a sign of their growing mainstream political status. Challenges to debate tend to be issued by underdogs but, as with Gordon Brown issuing a challenge to opposition leader David Cameron in 2010, the office-holder can be the underdog.

The Deputy Prime Minister challenging a party leader with no Commons seats at all reflects the political reality that the Liberal Democrats are the underdogs in the European elections. In 2009, the Lib Dems came fourth and Ukip second, even when both parties were in opposition. In 2014, Ukip is confident its bid to top the poll can succeed, while a realistic Lib Dem ambition will be to secure enough support to hold off a Green challenge for fourth place. 

Clegg challenged Farage to these debates about Europe, but this means that he has challenged Ukip to a debate about immigration too. Nigel Farage will certainly want to make this a debate about immigration. The Ukip leader believes that the public care more about immigration than Europe. He is right about that - especially when it comes to those considering voting for his party.

For both Clegg and Farage, the debate offers an opportunity to play to their respective bases of support - on both issues. The question is whether either can reach beyond that. About one in four people will always prefer Clegg's unambiguously pro-European "party of in" stance to the UKIP bid to exit the club. These voters are comfortable with current levels of immigration too, and often struggle to see why anybody should worry about the benefits that it brings. About one in four people are convinced that Nigel Farage is right that Britain has no choice but to leave, and are determined to see immigration at the lowest possible level. Most of this group would want to close the borders if they could.

But that leaves most people open to persuasion, neither committed to Team Nick or Team Nigel. The average British voter is not convinced by the case for the EU, nor persuaded that we would be better off out. In a referendum tomorrow, the vote would be pretty evenly split. While almost half of voters say they know for sure how they will vote in a referendum, most say they could change their minds. When asked about Britain's long-term position, only 28 per cent want to leave the club. Meanwhile, 55 per cent say they would like to stay in the EU, though most of this group would like to see David Cameron successfully negotiate to reduce Brussels' powers. Seventeen per cent don't know. Beyond the "pro" and "anti" European tribes, the British public is open-minded and up for grabs.

Clegg's challenge is to make the liberal argument make sense beyond those groups - particularly graduates, younger voters and Londoners - who begin strongly disposed to his side of the argument. Perhaps less noticed is that Ukip face a similar challenge, or a reverse mirror image of that facing pro-European liberals. Though Ukip's self-image is one of offering a populist common sense challenge to the political elite, authoritative new research, by the academics Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin, shows that they are not a "catch-all" populist party, but rather the party with the most distinctive sociological profile of all. The Ukip vote is older, more male, more working-class and more likely to have left school at 16. The party's messages resonate with these "left behind" voters - but have much more trouble connecting with Britons born after 1966.

Tactically, it could be argued that neither Clegg nor Farage needs to reach out much when it comes to a pre-European elections face-off.  After all, only one-third of the electorate will participate in May's vote. Preaching to the already-converted can be enough in a low participation, low stakes and low salience election. 

But, strategically, both men should realise that this is not enough if they want to engage and try to win the bigger, contested arguments about the national interest: whether Britain is better off in or out; whether the EU can be reformed to better reflect our interests and values, or whether that is a quixotic quest; whether the British could decide that EU free movement is a two-way street worth keeping, or at least a price worth paying. 

These issues will not be settled by this initial skirmish at the European election hustings, nor by the European elections themselves. Both Clegg and Farage are interested in winning the public argument about Britain's future: they each need to try to reach out to the unpersuaded majority too.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Pexel
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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times