The EU flag and the Union Jack stand next to each others outside the European Commission building in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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As the EU referendum battle begins, the advantage lies with the In campaign

The political narrowness of the Out side and the prominence of the toxic Farage could doom its chances. 

By the end of this parliament, the UK may no longer be a member of the European Union – but this was little discussed during the general election. At no point in the campaign – with the exception of Tony Blair’s speech on the subject on 7 April – did the issue acquire the prominence that it deserved. Partly owing to the mistaken belief of many that Ed Miliband would become prime minister, the prospect of a Labour-SNP alliance attracted far more scrutiny. After the Tories’ victory, it is the European question that will now define British politics. The bill guaranteeing a referendum by the end of 2017 was supreme among those included in the first Conservative Queen’s Speech in 19 years. No piece of legislation in recent decades has been as potentially consequential.

David Cameron has embarked on the dual task of winning over his EU partners and his party, so as to create the conditions for a successful renegotiation and an In vote. To the distaste of some, he used the Riga summit on European relations with Russia to open discussions with his foreign counterparts. His announcement that EU migrants and under-18s – two groups likely to favour membership – would be barred from voting in the referendum was intended to reassure Tory MPs and Eurosceptic voters that the ballot would not be “rigged”.

Four decades ago, not long after winning a similarly slim majority (and defying the opinion polls), Harold Wilson announced that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community would be held within six months. These are far from the only parallels with today. Wilson, like Cameron, had initially resisted demands for a vote before relenting for the sake of Labour unity. As James Callaghan presciently observed in 1970, the policy was “a little rubber life raft into which the whole party may one day have to climb”. Rather than staging a referendum on the UK’s existing membership terms, Wilson also chose to pursue renegotiation. The concessions he secured, such as increased quotas for New Zealand butter and lamb (the country was a rival trade partner to Europe), were almost comically minimal. Yet the argument that the UK’s economic interests lay in continued membership (one championed by Margaret Thatcher, among others) trumped all else. The result was a decisive vote in favour of the status quo (67 per cent to 33 per cent).

Recent events have increased the confidence of the pro-EU side that history will repeat itself. The achievement of a Conservative majority has enhanced the authority of Cameron, who will be the de facto leader of the In campaign. Both his party and European partners are obliged to give him a fairer hearing than they anticipated. That the referendum is being held under a Tory prime minister is no small advantage for EU supporters. Under the “Nixon goes to China”principle, it is far easier for a Conservative Eurosceptic to win than it would be for a Labour Europhile. Cameron need not achieve all or even most of his aims, such as a four-year ban on welfare benefits for EU migrants and the exemption of the UK from “ever closer union” – merely enough to argue plausibly that a better deal is on offer.

As well as Cameron and other senior Tories, the pro-EU campaign will command the support of Labour (which has sensibly revoked its opposition to the referendum), the SNP (unlike in 1975), the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the CBI and the TUC. Their opponents will form a less eclectic coalition. Conservative MPs tell me that they expect up to a third of their number to campaign for withdrawal, among them current and former members of the cabinet such as Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling and Owen Paterson. If Cameron is wise, he will again follow Wilson’s example and suspend collective ministerial responsibility, limiting the intensity of the split. Unfortunately for the Outers, those Tories poised to join them are hardly renowned for their public appeal.

This obstacle is modest compared to what Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”. The Ukip leader is the country’s most visible proponent of EU withdrawal but he is incapable of winning over the moderates needed to deliver victory – and actively repels many of them. There is some polling evidence that Farage’s party has toxified the Eurosceptic brand as voters seek to avoid guilt by association. At the very moment that support for Ukip reached a record high last year, so did support for EU membership. Farage is a 15 per cent, not a 50 per cent politician. John Mills, the Eurosceptic Labour donor, who was national agent for the 1975 No campaign, told me: “You’ve got to have some kind of balance . . . to avoid it being polarised into Ukip against the rest of the country.” He suggested that Kate Hoey, the former Labour minister, should play a leading role. But there is no left-wing Eurosceptic of the stature of Tony Benn, Barbara Castle, Michael Foot or Peter Shore available. The death of the RMT general secretary Bob Crow last year deprived the Out campaign of another figure capable of reaching parts of the electorate that the Tories and Farage cannot.

The Eurosceptics’ great hope is that anti-establishment sentiment and discontent with the Conservatives will manifest itself through an Out vote. But the possibility of a referendum as early as next May reduces the risk of it functioning as a vehicle for midterm protest. Should economic growth collapse, the incentive to avoid further turbulence will only sharpen. History may yet record Cameron as the Prime Minister who presided over three referendums (on the Alternative Vote, Scottish independence and the EU) and preserved the status quo in each. For a Conservative leader, it would be an apt legacy.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.