In, out, shake it all about: David Cameron in 2013, shortly before committing to an In-Out referendum. Photo: Getty Images
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The complacency of the Yes campaign may yet lead to a European exit

The In-Out referendum isn't a foregone conclusion - and complacy could win it for No.

In the climax of the general election campaign, Tony Blair made a strong case against holding an EU referendum. “Nationalism,” he said, “is a powerful sentiment. Let that genie out of the bottle and it is a Herculean task to put it back. Reason alone struggles.” 

He is right. Even if – as many predict – we vote to stay in ‘the club’ in 2016-17, the echoes of this referendum will continue for years afterwards. Furthermore, as long as the Eurozone remains unstable – which it will for at least a decade – the flame of Eurosceptism will keep burning and the possibility of ‘Brexit’ will linger.

Despite this there seems to be a growing complacency amongst pro-EU supporters that the referendum is a done deal. This is a complacency I hear all the time and at all levels: That when push comes to shove Brits will side with the stability of European membership as opposed to risking economic instability.

Talk to any pro-European politician or business leader and they will tell you - with a wry smile - that the electorate won’t, even can’t, leave Europe. Instead, they will remind you, the electorate will vote with their head, not their heart, when jobs are concerned.

I believe this view poses a greater threat than anything else to Britain’s ongoing relationship with Europe.

If history teaches us one thing, it is that there is nothing inevitable when nationalism is involved. People said Scotland would “inevitably” remain in the union when they voted in their referendum last year. And yes, unionists may have won that day –saved by the last minute interventions of a revved-up Gordon Brown – but, independence now seems more probable than ever.

It is an uncomfortable truth, but Euroscepticism was neither born overnight or with the birth of UKIP. Rather it is an emotional conclusion based on half a century of social turmoil which has forced many to question their place in the world.  For most, European membership is in turn intrinsically tied to immigration, perhaps the most sensitive issue for our country. 

Explaining their confidence, Europhiles tend to cite two facts. First, the idea that people voting in referendums stick with what they know, and secondly, a growing early lead for the Pro-Europeans in the opinion polls.

Both these arguments are shaky. The first is just factually wrong. Since 1846, separatists have won 51 independence referendums around the world. Yes Quebec and Scotland demonstrate voter prudence in national referendums, but people regularly vote en masse for un-tested ideas. Nor is it correct to assume that people see themselves better-off as EU members. For those working in domestic industries, like construction or trade, the threat of cheap migrant labour usually outweighs any benefit they feel from the free movement of goods across the European markets.

And what do the polls really tell us? Whilst the ‘stay-in’ camp commands a hefty 22 point lead at the moment, it was only as recently as 2012 that a majority wanted to leave the EU. Britons tend to be more pro-EU when they feel prosperous and more anti when times are hard. This is mirrored in the upswing in anti-EU support during the early 2000’s and 1980’s. Today, global economic recovery remains sluggish and UK living standards linger well behind 2008 levels. Furthermore there are complexities within the opinion polls. Although the ‘yes’ campaign currently has a comfortable lead in simple ‘leave or stay’ questions, when you ask voters whether they would stay in the EU on current terms, a majority would actually vote to leave (41%).

None of this is to say us pro-Europeans are not in a favourable position to win the referendum. Clearly there is a growing lead for the business focused, outward looking arguments the ‘Yes’ campaign is putting forward.

Instead it is a warning that unless we resoundingly defeat the ‘No’ camp’s ideology of anti-immigration and isolationism once and for all, Euro sceptism will live on well past 2017. In the long term, without addressing growing pro-EU complacency we may be sleep-walking into calamity.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue