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18 November 2015updated 23 Nov 2015 5:54pm

The three referendums that will shape whether Britain stays in the European Union

1975, 2011 and 2014 all prey on the minds of some of the campaign's key players.

By Stephen Bush

The coming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union is haunted by three referendums: the 1975 referendum on British membership of the European Common Market, the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote, and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

Take 1975 first: the contest of which this one would, in an ideal world – if you are a pro-European or David Cameron – be a straight replay of. A Prime Minister, regarded, despite his election-winning heroics as a vapid show pony by many observers, calls a referendum on the European question not out of a great point of principle, but in order to manage his fractious activists. He secures a handful of token concessions from his European partners, declares a glorious victory – and retires in glory, his chosen successor in Downing Street and his enemies frustrated.

For Harold Wilson in 1975, read David Cameron in 2017 (or whenever the referendum ends up being held). But then, the overwhelming majority of the press backed the status quo – now much of the press will be hostile. As one senior staffer in the In campaign observes, “even those papers who will come down in favour will give Leave a fair hearing – we won’t get the same [in reverse]”.

In 1975, too, Wilson had a helping hand from the headstrong leader of the Opposition, regarded by many as a certain loser, one Margaret Thatcher. Although in retirement Thatcher discovered a rich vein of anti-Europeanism, she was, at that time, a vocal supporter of Britain’s membership of the Common Market.

Jeremy Corbyn may also be headstrong and regarded as a surefire loser by his opponents, but he remains – quietly – opposed to Britain’s membership of the European Union. He does not, in the words of one close ally “have religion” on it in the way that he does on, say, the nuclear deterrent.  But he will not be a loud champion of a “Remain” vote and the prospect of a Corbyn intervention for “Leave” is among the nightmare scenarios for the In campaign.

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Also standing in the way of a re-run of 1975 is the quality of the Leave campaign. The election keeping pro-Europeans awake at night happened just four years ago, in 2011. The Alternative Vote started with a  big lead over the status quo in 2011, only to go down to a thumping defeat, being rejected by two-thirds of voters, with just Hackney, Cambridge, Oxford, Islington, Haringey, Edinburgh Central, Southwark, Glasgow Kelvin and Lambeth voting for change.

The campaign against the Alternative Vote, even senior figures admit, was cynical, disingenous, and underhanded. But it was also a textbook case of how to campaign and win – and Matthew Elliot, of Vote Leave was the architect of that campaign.

Before the election, one pro-European Labour frontbencher observed that  “we already know how they’ll play it [a vote to leave the EU]. A few useful idiots from our side, plenty of money from the Tory side and a few seemingly apolitical figures while we run around talking about fishing rights”.

That is, in essence, how Vote Leave hopes to fight and win the In-Out referendum.  But they may not get the chance. They are vying with Leave.EU for the “official” nod from the Electoral Commission to lead the Out campaign. Most Inners would rather face Leave.EU rather than Vote Leave. A Leave.EU campaign is likely to be far more narrow, far more focussed on Ukipesque themes, and would find it “much, much harder” in the words of one Outer, to get the 51 per cent of the vote necessary to leave the European Union.  

The choice for the Electoral Commission is trickier than it looks. Both campaigns have a strong case for receiving the official designation. Vote Leave has the wider political reach – as well as Ukip’s increasingly detached MP Douglas Carswell, it has signed up the Green’s sole peer, Jenny Jones, the Labour MP Kate Hoey and a bumper crop of Conservatives – but Leave.EU’s goes deeper. They have many more activists and social media supporters.

In any case, to the delight of the In campaign, as much as cooler heads would wish it were otherwise, Nigel Farage will play a big role in the referendum – with all the potential that has to put Brexit on the wrong side of a growing culture clash. “The BBC will still book Nigel Farage, whoever is in charge [of the Out campaign],” says one Inner.

That said, a narrow Out campaign, focussed on identity, immigration and Ukip’s other greatest hits, while in many ways the best case scenario for pro-Europeans, will have Labour strategists nervous. That third referendum – the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence – still has Labour MPs nervous. They fear that the In-Out referendum will allow Ukip to do to them in the North what the SNP has done in Scotland. They warn that a Ukip-dominated Out campaign that flops in the South and Midlands but recalibrates politics in the North might be  victory for pro-Europeans; but for Britain’s biggest pro-European party, it could be a victory with a heavy price.

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