Michael Heseltine arrives at St Margaret's Church to attend the funeral of Tony Benn last week in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Exclusive: Michael Heseltine: EU referendum will have a "chilling effect" on business

Conservative peer also says that Britain will join the euro, that UKIP is a "racist" party and that Boris Johnson shouldn't stand for parliament before 2016.

At 81, Michael Heseltine retains the energy and lucidity of a man two decades younger. He has recently acquired full control of Haymarket, the publishing group he founded in 1957 and that earned him his estimated £250m fortune, and an office in the Treasury, where he serves as a wise elder to cities minister Greg Clark. He remains as keen as ever to have his say on the issues of the day, not least Britain's membership of the European Union. I recently interviewed him for the NS (read the full piece here), and here are the highlights of our conversation.

EU referendum: "chilling effect" on business

If, as Heseltine expects, David Cameron remains prime minister after the next election, a referendum will be held on EU membership by the end of 2017. It is a decision, he warned, that will have a "chilling effect" on business.

It will [have a chilling effect], this will be one of the arguments, an important argument. And industry is beginning to say it ... serious industrialists and our allies - America, Germany - are beginning to express their concerns. This will become a much more articulate debate as time goes on.

He dismissed Cameron's decision to promise a referendum as an act of party management.

“David Cameron is leader of a party and all parties are coalitions and he has to make a balanced judgement. I believe in Britain’s self-interest being pursued through a European agenda, I’m not in favour of referenda on this or any other subject. I know perfectly well that the only referendum we had on the subject was to get Harold Wilson out of a mess in 1975, it wasn’t a strategic ‘we must consult the people’ activity, it was because he had a split party and the only way to reconcile that was to have a referendum. It’s a time-honoured device, but my party criticised at the time and I still, in perhaps a rather naive way, believe the things today that I believed 30 or 40 years ago.”

Britain will join the euro

After Heseltine mocked the eurosceptics for predicting that the economic crisis would result in the break-up of the euro, I asked him whether he believes that Britain will join the single currency. He replied:

Oh yes, one day, one day. We have resisted all these European ventures in my life, we tried to keep out in Messina in ‘55, that was a very bad decision. Then we joined on terms which were not to our liking but were the best we could get. But we tried to compete with them with EFTA, now of course virtually the whole of EFTA has joined the European Union. Margaret Thatcher was no European but she signed the biggest sharing of sovereignty in British history called the Single European Act, she was quite right to do so.

Of the eurosceptics, he said: “What would be quite amusing is to collect the headlines and speeches from the last three years. They tell their own story: they have a dream, which is to get out of Europe, they use the dream to create the headlines and the headlines turn out to be rubbish ... If you think of what they predicted was going to happen to Europe as a result of the euro ...  Day after day, week after week, in the small print, I read Mr [George] Soros is now putting billions back into the Spanish economy, I’d rather trust him.”

UKIP: "There is a racist undertone"

It is the outfit that Heseltine contemptuously refers to as the "UK Isolationist Party" that has driven much of the debate over the EU and immigration. Recalling that he was "the first Conservative to criticise Enoch Powell", he compared Ukip to far-right parties past and present.

“The racial overtones that are within the Ukip movement have got the same motivation [and] psychological impact as Mosley in the Twenties and Thirties, as Powell in the Sixties, Le Pen in France, the hard right in Holland and in Germany. It’s all the same stuff.

He stood by his description last year of the party as "racist".

There is a racist undertone, there’s no question about it.

Boris Johnson: he shouldn't stand for parliament before 2016

The politician most often compared to Heseltine is Boris Johnson, who succeeded him as MP for Henley and who shares his voluminous mane, overweening ambition and love of grand projets. After Cameron’s declaration that he wants Johnson back "on the pitch", Westminster is rife with speculation that the mayor could return to parliament in 2015, leaving him free to stand in any post-election Tory leadership contest. But Heseltine, who failed in his ambition to become prime minister after the fall of Margaret Thatcher ("He who wields the knife never wears the crown," he presciently told New Society in 1986), advised Johnson to wait until after he has completed his second term as mayor in 2016.

He’s obviously going to fight to help Cameron to win, and so he should. I’m totally convinced that he will do everything he can. I think, if I was him, I would be inclined to say: 'I was elected to be mayor of London until 2016; I gave my word to London; I will stick with my word.'

I think that Boris, in his own interests, and he’s fully entitled to see it in his own interests, wants to leave a mark of reliability and dependability and trust and keeping faith with London. After all, it’s 20 per cent of the electorate. That would be an important thing in that calculation. I think he can do everything he needs to do to help the Conservatives. And of course whenever he wants to come back to the House of Commons, he’ll get a seat.

I asked him whether he believed Johnson would make a good prime minister. He replied: "I’m not going to get involved in trying to speculate on that. He will certainly be a candidate, and a perfectly credible candidate, but there are other candidates and one or two obvious people have got very considerable qualifications as well. I’m not going to get involved in being on one side or another. I’m pleased that the Tory party has such a rich seam of talent available to it whenever David Cameron decides to go, which I don’t think will be for some time."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Low turnout may not be enough to save Zac Goldsmith

Demographic patterns in mayoral elections do not replicate those at general elections. 

It is a truism in politics to say that older people vote. Almost exactly a year ago - the day before the General Election - ComRes published a briefing note for our clients pointing out that with large leads particularly amongst older people, as well as among the affluent and those who owned their home, the Conservatives were in the dominant position as the country headed to the polls.           

Turnout is one of the most difficult parts of polling to get right, but history was unequivocal in suggesting that these groups were overwhelmingly the most likely to vote in a General Election. This gave David Cameron the advantage, whatever the headline numbers in the polls were saying, and Labour would need a change in behaviour of historic proportions in order to make it to Downing Street.           

It is in the same spirit that a number of commentators have written articles raising the prospects of an upset in the election for Mayor of London. Different arguments have been used, but the central thrust has tended to be that, despite Sadiq Khan’s lead overall, there are turnout advantages not picked up in polling which benefit the Conservatives and which could produce a shock result.            

This is the first point made by Asa Bennett when advising “Don't write Zac Goldsmith off as London Mayor – he can still win this thing”, while Adam Bienkov has suggested that a low turnout “will inevitably help the Tories, whose voters tend to be older, wealthier and more likely to turn up to the polls.”           

While these arguments make intuitive sense, they make one fatal assumption: that demographic patterns in mayoral elections replicate those at general elections.           

Firstly, it is important to point out that there are no exact numbers on who actually votes at elections. The paper copies of marked electoral registers are kept separately by local authorities and contain no demographic information anyway.            

Instead, we know who votes in General Elections because in places where the population is older, turnout tends to be higher than in places where it is younger. Communities with more middle class and affluent constituents have higher turnouts than more deprived areas.      

The graphs below show the relationship between the socio-economic make up of a constituency’s population, with the proportion of people who turned out to vote at the last General Election. As can be seen, the higher the proportion of constituents who come from the most affluent AB social grades, the higher the turnout was in the constituency. On the other hand, turnout was lower the higher the proportion of a constituency’s population came from the least affluent DE social grades.

Now this all fits with expectation. But the rub comes when we run a similar exercise on the last mayoral election in 2012. If we look at the age profile of individual electoral wards, we would expect to see those with a higher proportion of older people have a higher level of turnout at the election. “Older people vote” after all.

But if we look at the data, a different picture emerges. The graph below shows all the wards in London, and the relationship between the proportion of people aged 55 and over in that ward, and the proportion of people who turned out to vote. And the picture is surprising but clear: there was almost no relationship between age and likelihood to vote at the last mayoral election. 

As the graph shows, there is a very slight incline upwards in the trend-line as the proportion of 55+ constituents increases, but the fit is very loose. The individual data points are scattered all over the place, far from the line and indicating an extremely weak relationship – if any at all (this wouldn’t pass a statistical test for the presence of a correlation).

The case is similar if we use with proportion of 18-34 years – or for that matter, the proportion of a ward’s population which owns their home. Despite some commentators suggesting homeowners are more likely to vote, the data suggest this is not the case at mayoral elections.

Another common trope is that “the doughnut may yet do it” for the Conservatives, with turnout being lower in inner London, where Labour does better, and higher turnout in the leafy suburbs therefore delivering victory for Zac Goldsmith. Again though, this claim does not really stand up to reality. If we look at average turnout in inner and outer London boroughs, it has not been noticeably higher in the outer ring of the doughnut since 2004. In fact, at the last mayoral election, average turnout was slightly higher in inner London boroughs than it was in outer London boroughs.

There is one final possibility, which has become a higher profile issue in the current contest than in the past: that there is a racial element in Londoners’ likelihood to vote. This is important because Zac currently leads Sadiq Khan by seven points among London’s white population, but is 31 points behind among BAME Londoners. If white Londoners were much more likely to vote therefore, there is an outside possibility that Zac Goldsmith could sneak a result.

Once again though, the data suggest this is not the case – there was very little relationship between a ward’s ethnic profile and its level of turnout at the last mayoral election. The predominantly white wards on the left hand side of the chart below include the wards with the highest turnout – but also most of the lowest. There is little to suggest that the predominantly BAME wards necessarily have a lower level of turnout than the London-wide average.

Overall then, there is little relationship between turnout at mayoral elections and age, home ownership, suburbia or ethnicity. It is within this context that much of Zac Goldsmith’s campaign, which has raised controversy in some areas, should be seen. Seeking to link Sadiq Khan to Islamic radicalism is not necessarily about trying to get people to change how they will vote, but more to provide an incentive for older voters in outer London to go out to the polling station and to drive up turnout among Conservative-leaning groups.

In turn, the hope is also to reduce the motivation to vote among Labour-leaning voters by creating an element of doubt in the back of the mind and to dampen enthusiasm (“Meh – I’m not sure I want him to be elected anyway”). The leaflets targeting Hindu and Sikh households are perhaps also similar examples of this - if not converting your opponent’s voters, at least reducing their affinity to him (or her).

Of course, it could also have the opposite effect. Rather than making Labour-leaning voters less likely to vote, Goldsmith’s campaign may have provided them with more of a reason to make the trip to the polling station, in order to stop a campaign they see as racially-charged and a threat to London’s status as a beacon of successful multiculturalism.  

Either way, if such tactics are to work, the Conservatives will need to overturn the turnout trends seen in 2012 to a very large extent. 

London is famously a city where relative wealth and deprivation sit closely alongside each other. Mews housing Georgian terraces meander into streets containing chicken shops, homeless refuges or council estates; Londoners of all backgrounds subscribe themselves to the same crush of the Tube at rush hour. For whatever reason, London also has not the stark variations in propensity to vote between different social groups seen in national elections. Turnout may hold the key for Goldsmith, but it would represent a rupture of historical trend, rather than an expression of it.