Nigel Farage ahead of his second debate with Nick Clegg. Photo: Getty
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Is Nigel Farage hurting the Eurosceptic cause?

If Euroscepticism does not have a much broader appeal than Ukip, Nigel Farage risks becoming an unlikely heir to the late Tony Benn.

It was a very good night for Nigel Farage. The Ukip leader won the second of his two debates with deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg rather more decisively than the first. According to the ICM post-debate poll, 71 per cent of Conservatives and 57 per cent of Labour voters and even 42 per cent of LibDems thought that the Ukip leader won the second debate. Only 2 per cent of Ukip voters gave it to Nick Clegg.

For the uncommitted, Farage certainly won clearly on debating style. But Nick Clegg was much too narrow on substance too. The LibDem leader consistently pitched only to the minority of existing liberal pro-Europeans - seeking their European votes this May - and rarely made the arguments which could well broaden that base to a majority.

So Clegg spoke of his love for modern Britain’s diversity without also talking about why integration matters more if a fast-changing society is to be confident that we have a shared sense of ourselves, that unites new and old Britons alike. Asked for his vision of the EU in a decade’s time, Clegg thought it would be “pretty much the same” as now. That might work with the one in six people who like the status quo, but he offered nothing to the clear majority who would want to stay in as long as the EU was reformed. Farage’s case was not always especially coherent - he was getting out of Europe to go global on trade with India, while also consistently bashing business, and made a virtue of an isolationist foreign policy. But it was the Ukip leader, not the LibDem, who tried harder to connect beyond his base of support.

As the populist Ukip leader makes the political weather, he worries pro-Europeans and cheers up those who would like Britain to get out of the EU.

But should that be the other way around?

Here is the Nigel Farage paradox: the more that Ukip’s media profile, poll rating and party membership has grown over the last two years, the more that support for the party’s core mission – that Britain should leave the European Union – seems to have shrunk.

The YouGov tracker on an in/out referendum captures this Farage paradox clearly.

Last year, there was an average lead for “out” over “in” of sixteen points: 48 per cent to 32 per cent.

Since then, Nigel Farage has rarely been off the television, but the trend is now neck and neck. After Farage won the first debate, the Sunday Times/YouGov poll had a six point lead for “in”, the biggest lead for the pro-EU case for two years.

The polls will continue to fluctuate, but the rise of Ukip has certainly put “in” back on level terms.

There is no doubt that Nigel Farage resonates very effectively for the one in four who are certain that Britain should leave. Those who feel most “left behind” hear their deeper discontents about how Britain has changed being voiced in mainstream politics for the first time. Yet the Ukip mood music can be a turn-off for softer Eurosceptics and “don’t knows” who are not uncomfortable with the society they live in, and risks turning those who were “leaning more out than in” back into reluctant Europeans. Hence Douglas Carswell’s timely warning to his fellow Eurosceptics that “we must change our tune to sing something that chimes with the whole country”. The libertarian Conservative argues that the “better off out” camp must offer an optimistic vision of the future, not just a reverie for a lost Britain, or what he describes as an “angry nativism”.

Immigration has driven Ukip support, which is much stronger among the one-in-four Britons who would stop all immigration if they could. Carswell says that the argument for having more control over migration needs to acknowledge that this can’t happen in the real world.

Immigration, many Outers seem to believe, is our strongest card. It links one of the public’s number one concerns with the question of our EU membership. Perhaps. But the Out campaign must not descend into any kind of angry nativism. First and second generation Britons must feel as comfortable voting to quit the EU as those whose ancestors came over before William the Conqueror. An independent Britain is not going to have no immigration.

Nigel Farage last night had to disown a Ukip leaflet with a Native American pictured and the slogan ‘He ignored immigration and now he lives on a reservation’. That nativist pitch is an example of the gap between some of Ukip’s national media messages in mainstream media debates and the much harder messages being delivered in some local posters and leaflets.

Carswell is surely right that if most people think Euroscepticism is dominated by nostalgia for the past, anger about what has changed, and pessimism for the future, it has no realistic chance of persuading most Britons to make the leap.

But there are two significant challenges for this more liberal and optimistic Euroscepticism.

Ukip could prosper as a party on a narrower and angrier argument. That is enough to get 10 per cent in the polls and perhaps winning a European election, but it would be a much less effective approach in a referendum, where the target is 50 per cent of the vote, not 30 per cent of the narrower electorate who turn up to vote in May 2014. “Outsider” parties like Ukip have, since 1999, performed strongly in European elections and then faded when the question is who should govern Britain, as our report this week, ‘The rise and rise of the outsider election’, illustrated.

The other challenge is that this open and liberal Euroscepticism may be an even more elite project than liberal Europhilia. Among the public at large, the “better off out” case currently is resonating most with those who do prefer the past to the future, as both attitudinal and generational data suggests.

The over 60s would prefer to get out – while Sunday’s YouGov poll showed a preference for in among all groups born after 1954, and so who did not cast their first votes until after Britain had joined the club. The case for “out” can’t win fail if it can only persuade those who can personally remember a Britain outside the EU.

The Ukip leader may be making the political weather, but if Euroscepticism does not have a much broader appeal than Ukip, Nigel Farage risks becoming an unlikely heir to the late Tony Benn.

Benn’s insurgency mobilised activism on the left as had not been achieved for a generation, but failed catastrophically at the ballot box. The Labour left-winger was the decisive voice in insisting on a referendum after Britain joined the EEC. Harold Wilson granted Benn’s wish. But though the anti-EEC campaign began in the lead, it lost the vote by a two-to-one margin. If Farage does secure a referendum, a Ukip-dominated campaign might prove a recipe for losing it.

Nick Clegg’s performance was narrowly pitched to pro-European voters who might come out for the LibDems in May 2014. That showed that the question of “who can give the pro-EU case popular reach beyond those already onside” still awaits an answer.

 

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

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.