A new book by two historians on Cameron’s ten years as leader of the Conservative Party quotes his comment before becoming prime minister: “I don’t want Europe to define my premiership”. Apparently his advisers had reassured him that the next five years “would not be difficult in the EU”, with the Lisbon Treaty settled and no new treaty changes in sight. But now, with the season of British political party conferences opening, there has been a shock for the country’s pro-EU camp in advance of the UK’s EU membership referendum. For the first time, a public opinion poll has shown a 51-49% majority for leaving the EU.
There are several factors which may be behind this sway in public mood, including the decision of this year’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) to send a warning shot about workers’ rights to prime minister David Cameron while he continues his EU renegotiation efforts, and the election in a landslide victory of the new Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn – a Leftist who’s unenthusiastic about the EU. These events, and more besides, have sharply taken away the previous certainty of a pro-EU outcome.
“This referendum is not about accepting Cameron’s reforms, but on membership”
Corbyn’s ‘Jez we can’ electoral campaign – with its echoes of continental populist movements like Podemos or Syriza – swelled his final share of the vote to nearly 60%. He told his first meeting of muted Labour parliamentarians, most of whom still support the Kinnock/Blair/Brown school, that EU membership is a good thing but that the party should not automatically support any deal negotiated by Cameron. Hours later, Corbyn’s foreign affairs spokesman, Hilary Benn, said that Labour would campaign to stay in “under all circumstances”. As Labour pro-Europeans point out, this referendum is not about accepting Cameron’s reforms, but on membership – far more crucial than any reforms that might later be revisited.
Corbyn clarified his position by saying that he will not campaign for Britain to leave the EU, and that he could not foresee a situation in which Labour would campaign for a Brexit under his leadership. Later though, in the House of Commons, Corbyn stated that he had met thousands of people during his election campaign who felt that parliament was “out of touch”, possibly allowing himself a degree of detachment from his own party’s pro-EU MPs.
As well as Labour, Cameron is also under pressure from the 56 Scottish National Party MPs to deliver fully on the pledges he made during last year’s Scottish independence referendum for increased devolution such as further tax-raising powers. The SNP leadership talks openly about a second Scottish referendum if the UK votes to leave the EU, which would have a much greater chance then of splitting up the UK.
But it is Cameron’s own MPs who have harried him the most over Europe and pushed him into the referendum and the subsequent concessions around it. With a majority of only 12 MPs and without the restraining influence of former Europe-friendly coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, Cameron is even more vulnerable.
As the weeks and months pass, this attrition will continue, and whatever Cameron wrings from his EU partners, strategic sectors of the public may begin to desert the pro-EU consensus, of which the trade unions have been the largest element. Cameron’s warning to the largely pro-EU British business to “shut up” about Europe as he resumed his bilateral talks in early September suggests that he wants to control the agenda and the media from Downing Street. As a former PR man, it is perhaps a natural instinct. But the public is mistrustful of politicians as it is.
“Whatever Cameron wrings from his EU partners, strategic sectors of the public may begin to desert the pro-EU consensus”
Meanwhile, both sides are preparing to launch their campaigns in light of the Electoral Commission’s decision that the referendum question should not be ‘Yes or No’, but ought instead to ask “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”, requiring a ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ answer. As he explains in his excellent app ‘Doorstep EU’, Labour MEP Richard Corbett, a former adviser to EU Council President Herman van Rompuy, describes by way of “acquiescence bias” that people are more likely to agree than disagree with a proposal. The government that same day gave up its ability to hold a snap referendum by imposing a ‘purdah’ – a period in which the government must refrain from announcements or promotions that might influence poll outcomes – on itself on EU issues; the terms of this are to be defined before a four-month period running up to the referendum.
The task for the UK’s pro-EU organisations, like the non-party European Movement, is to use all the time available to motivate and inform as many different sectors – science, the arts, the young – about the advantages of EU membership, using new techniques of communication. The sweeping victory of old guard Jeremy Corbyn has shown how it’s to be done.
PHOTO CREDIT: European Union 2015 / Ansotte Etienne