Tuesday

31st Jan 2023

Brexit Briefing

How Cameron's EU referendum silenced left-wing Britain

  • Cameron visiting PricewaterhouseCoopers firm in Birmingham. Most of the passion in the debate comes from Conservatives. (Photo: Georgina Coupe/Number 10)

Observing the UK’s referendum debate you could be forgiven for thinking that the campaign is little more than a civil war within the Conservative party.

With the exception of Barack Obama’s visit – whose unequivocal message that UK voters should retain EU membership calmed the nerves of the Remain camp, even if it is yet to be reflected in opinion poll data – prime minister David Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne have been dominating the airwaves. Justice minister Michael Gove and London Mayor Boris Johnson have been doing the same for the Leave campaign.

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Yet it is hardly a surprise. Most of the passion in an increasingly bitter debate focusing on money, security and sovereignty comes from the Conservatives.

With Cameron having promised to stand down as prime minister well in advance of the 2020 election, the referendum is rapidly becoming a poll on whether he remains in Downing Street after June. Cameron would be mortally wounded by a win for Brexit. So too would Osborne’s chances of succeeding him.

The most senior minister with designs on the leadership to attempt fence-sitting is home minister Theresa May. She argued in a speech on Monday (25 April) that the UK should leave the European Convention on Human Rights but not the EU. A barrage of criticism followed, and May swiftly learnt that where the EU is concerned, you cannot have your cake and eat it.

Tepid Labour support

For the 65 percent of voters who did not back the Conservatives in the election last May, a campaign dominated by warring Tories causes a problem.

Labour has found itself – quite predictably – in the position of tepidly supporting a Cameron negotiated EU settlement it does not agree with.

While the cross-party Britain Stronger In campaign is dominated by former Labour and Liberal Democrat staffers, the Labour party itself has allocated only a couple of officials to work on the campaign.

Labour’s absence from the debate has concerned many of its supporters, of whom 60-70 percent will vote Remain.

Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is from a faction that has long regarded the EU as a neo-liberal capitalist club.

Yet despite having voted against EEC membership in the UK’s last referendum in 1975 and being one of a handful of Labour backbench MPs to vote against the Lisbon treaty in 2008, Corbyn is a recent convert.

It is "perfectly possible to be critical and still be convinced we need to remain a member", he said in a rare public address on the EU on 14 April.

If more of his 229 Labour MPs backed Brexit, it is not hard to imagine Corbyn joining them.

Unions in

Behind the scenes, Alan Johnson, a veteran Labour MP with cabinet experience, is spearheading a pro-EU campaign focused on courting trade unions. He is highlighting the social and workplace rights offered by EU legislation.

Unions representing nearly four million workers have already pledged their support for continued EU membership. On Monday, the Communication Workers Union and shopworkers union Usdaw became the latest to endorse the Remain campaign. Whether they will match their rhetoric with the cash and shoe-leather needed for canvassing remains to be seen.

In a speech to Usdaw on Tuesday, Johnson argued that a vote to keep the UK in the EU could be more important for ordinary British workers than the election of the Labour government in 1945, which established the modern welfare state.

A pro-European passion deficit is, however, possibly the biggest threat to the Remain camp. They know that a low turnout is their enemy.

Attempts to rally the troops by both the hard and soft left have failed to gain traction.

David Miliband, a centrist who narrowly lost a party leadership election in 2010, said a Brexit vote would be an act of “political arson” during a flying visit to London last week.

But Miliband has been in self-imposed political exile since 2011, running the International Rescue Committee in New York.

On the hard left, Yanis Varoufakis, a socialist academic and short-lived Greek finance minister, now advising Labour’s economic team, has urged left-wing voters to back EU membership, warts and all.

Cameron's choosing

Meanwhile, the pro-EU Scottish National Party wins either way. Nicola Sturgeon’s party are almost certain to tighten their grip on power with an increased majority following next week’s Scottish Parliament elections.

A Brexit vote would make their job of demanding and winning a second referendum on Scottish independence from the UK even easier.

The 1975 campaign saw a series of unlikely bedfellows on both sides. While Margaret Thatcher and future Commission President Roy Jenkins backed EEC membership, Enoch Powell and Tony Benn from the hard-right and hard-left found themselves sharing a pulpit.

With the exception of a few backbench Labour MPs who are campaigning for Brexit, that will not happen this time.

The reality is that mobilisation on the left and by nationalists will be remain on the margins – a quiet campaign to persuade the millions for whom Cameron’s EU vision is not enticing.

The June poll is Cameron’s referendum, for his party, on his terms, and at his choosing.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy and a freelance writer. He will write the "UK referendum briefing" column during the 23 June referendum campaign.

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