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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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.