The loser now, will be later to win? Anti-market campaigners in 1975. Photo: Getty Images
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Don't look back in anger: why both In and Out must move on 1975

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Britain's last referendum on its membership of the European Union. But both In and Out must move on from that contest if they are to win the next one.

To remain, or not to remain, that is the question which will dominate the first half of this Parliament, beginning with the second reading of the Referendum Bill next week.

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?" appears set to be the question on which we shall all have the chance to vote, maybe next year, or otherwise in 2017.

Forty years ago today, Britain voted by 17 million to 8 million to remain in the European Economic Community, a 2-1 victory to stay in the club, with 65 per cent of those eligible turning out to vote.

Even four decades on, that referendum casts a long shadow still. Indeed, both sides of the next referendum debate risk remaining trapped in a 1975 timewarp, having done nothing like enough to update their arguments to adapt to how the world has changed since. This helps to explain why neither side looks anything like ready to contest the referendum – certainly once it comes to preaching beyond their committed supporters to the undecided voters who will actually decide the outcome.

“We only voted for a Common Market” is the refrain of those who have been itching for a re-run practically every day since June 1975.  That potent emotional cocktail of conspiracy and betrayal is a source of much Eurosceptic passion and energy. It casts Ted Heath as a traitor, never to be forgiven, each of his successors from Wilson to Cameron part of an elite conspiracy of sovereignty surrendered, borders opened and Britain betrayed.

It is an argument that can work, too – just as long as you remember that first vote personally. Around one-third of the 25 million who cast a vote in 1975 are still around today. They chose Europe then, when they were the younger part of the 1975 electorate, mostly aged between 18 and 34. 

So the big success of the 'out' cause has been a big sceptical swing among those who did cast a vote in 1975, and who are now the one group in the population who are more 'out' than 'in'. But its big failure has been to find an argument that makes sense to those who were not already adults then, especially those born in the last 40 years. If the referendum franchise were restricted to the over 55s, old enough to be voting for the second time, the “out” camp would start favourites, rather than underdogs. The problem for "out" is that everybody else will get a vote as well.

Hence the growing concern among thoughtful Eurosceptics about the “Farage paradox” – that, despite UKIP's intense appeal to the 13 per cent who voted purple in May, the overall impact of UKIP's high public profile has been to reduce support for leaving the EU, risking the 50 per cent target slipping beyond reach. Curiously, this gives UKIP a good claim to be the only political force in living memory to have shifted British public attitudes in a pro-European direction. Where Ted Heath, Tony Blair and Nick Clegg all failed, Nigel Farage seems to have accidentally succeeded. 

However, the pro-Europeans should not be too complacent that the other side will simply do their work for them. They too have the ability to be their own worst enemies. The story of 1975 is so beguilingly comforting that it risks trapping the Europhiles in a 1975 timewarp too.

A Prime Minister, dealing with a divided party, promised a renegotiation. Few paid any attention to the details – and precious little, bar some concessions for New Zealand butter, was achieved anyway – but opinion swung dramatically from an ‘out’ lead in the polls to give ‘in’ a decisive victory.

The 1975 campaign became characterized as a debate between the ‘moderates’ and the ‘extremes’. All of the people who looked like they could govern the country – Wilson and Thatcher, Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams – were on one side, backed by business, most union leaders and the Sun, the Mirror and the Daily Mail too. The opposition was a motley coalition of political renegades. But the combination of Tony Benn, Enoch Powell and Ian Paisley didn’t inspire confidence in having a plan for Britain after we left.

The hope that history will repeat itself has been much picked over in pro-European gatherings - even when they are meant to be strategising about the next referendum, not the last one. At one think-tank seminar, shortly before the General Election, where almost every contribution had focused on dissecting precedents and lessons from 1975, it all got a bit too much for one former government minister. “Could you all please stop going on about 1975? It’s ridiculous. Do you think they sat around discussing the campaigning lessons of the 1930s?", he shouted in frustration.

He was right to challenge the complacency. If a coalition of the elites proved persuasive in 1975, it might generate a two-fingered salute in today’s less deferential Britain. A narrow elite-led campaign runs the risk that people will hear them talking about the benefits of the European Union and simply think “we already know it works for people like you – but I don’t see why that benefits me”.

But the biggest shadow of 1975 for the pro-Europeans is that they forged their ‘winning’ arguments at a moment of national decline. 1975 was not a confident moment for Britain. Sir Christopher Soames summed up the 1975 mood with his warning that ‘In our present, parlous condition, this is no time for Britain to consider leaving a Christmas club, let alone the Common market’. It was an era dominated by debates about British ‘decline’, the country being ungovernable and going to the dogs. Even the most ambitious idea seemed to be that if we could try to catch up with the continentals, or turn ourselves into Germany, things might just get better.

That era of economic, cultural and psychological decline has long been over, but the pro-European arguments have barely changed to adapt to that. Forty years on, Nick Clegg was still making the Soames’ case. In losing his televised debate with Nigel Farage, Clegg painted a bleak picture of a "sort of Billy No Mates Britain - a Billy No Jobs Britain, a Billy No Influence Britain", which would commit “economic suicide” if we were to leave. As with Nigel Farage’s claim that Britain cannot claim to be a democracy if we stay in the EU, the absolute certainties of the committed fail to connect with anybody who feels torn by the choice. 

Tired pro-European metaphors about missing the boat and trains leaving the station have lost their power. In the era of the Eurozone crisis, people are much more inclined to want to ask questions about the train’s destination before worrying about not being on it. 

As Survation’s new polling on trust and Europe for British Future shows, both sides of the referendum campaign might want to be wary of those who are keenest to lead the referendum charge.  

Either side could win this referendum – or, perhaps more to the point, lose it, by failing to understand those who do not already agree with them.

‘Out’ won’t win if they do not broaden their appeal beyond those who remember 1975 – and who would turn the clock back if they could. Optimistic Eurosceptics like Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan and UKIP’s Douglas Carswell have made a cogent case that their side needs to make an argument about the future, not just offer a better yesterday. 

‘In’ can’t win if it offers a campaign only by, for and about those who feel confident about the way Britain is changing today, contrasting enlightened internationalism with narrow nationalism, and declaring that the question is whether to be “open or closed”. ‘In’ will win most graduates, as well as Londoners and Scots, but it needs a majority across Britain. 

Any sense of complacency that ‘in’ is likely to win could prove fatal for the pro-Europeans, particularly if that leads to a lower turnout. The 1975 turnout of 65 per cent sounds pretty respectable today, but six million of the 78 per cent who had turned out in the February 1974 general election didn’t bother. Should a referendum turnout in 2016 or 2017 dip towards 50 per cent, then the ‘out’ camp’s stronger appeal to older voters could be more useful than the half-hearted support of those who weren’t persuaded it would make enough difference to them, and didn’t turn up. 

So there is everything to play for. This referendum will be a big moment for British democracy. The outcome is up for grabs. Nobody can be certain which side will seize the opportunity. Whichever works hardest to escape the long shadow of the 1975 campaign may well have much the better chance. 

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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.