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Unity is key to win referendum
The question is simple, but the answer is the most contested issue in domestic politics today. June’s referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union carries with it momentous significance, and the popular verdict will determine the fate of a country, and potentially a continent too. It may be one of the most important political debates in decades, but partisan politics will only jeopardise the validity of the result.
Europhiles, europhobes and the undecided
For the next few months, two opposing campaigns will compete to convince voters that their stance on Europe will help steer the UK to a promising future. The referendum is already predicted to go down to the wire, with the electorate supposedly split into three relatively equal categories: europhiles, europhobes and the undecided. Victory will be granted to whoever can rally enough of the latter. But a convincing campaign - be it to leave or remain in the EU - will be characterised by its unity behind a single message. No undecided voter can feel compelled to back a cause where even those leading the campaign fail to agree with one another.
The Out Camp - Boris vs Farage
Such is the case with the Out camp. The campaign to leave the EU has been troubled by the cornucopia of views from within, as eurosceptics seemingly disagree on each other’s vision for Britain and who should lead their cause - be it a moderate voice for Brexit or the more notorious Nigel Farage, who could turn away any closet eurosceptic voters. The Out campaign’s vulnerability is one waiting to be exploited by its rivals, who back integrity with the European Union.
The In Camp - Behind it? yes. Together with Cameron? no.
Whereas insofar the In campaign has appeared relatively united, the lure of partisan politics threatens to divide europhiles. Labour, the SNP, Green and Liberal Democrat MPs have all - apart from an insignificant number of rebels - expressed their backing of the UK’s membership of the bloc. What seems to be a greater obstacle however to a united pro-EU voice is the stance of Prime Minister David Cameron.
For the first time in months, the PM was able to “recommend” the electorate to vote to stay inside a reformed EU. After previously having his hands tied by a deep split within the Conservative party - where two factions have long held diverging views with regards to EU membership - and pressure on his left and right flanks from the broad political landscape, Cameron is now defined by many as an ardent europhile. His positioning on the issue has deterred opposition parties to collaborate in keeping Britain in the union. Parties feeding off popular discontent of either Westminster politics or the Tory government desperately want to avoid appearing aligned with the PM’s narrative. And those parties are particularly powerful in today’s parliament. For instance, the Scottish Nationalist Party holds 56 seats and enjoys the support of several hundred thousand disgruntled Scottish voters, who oppose the British political “elite” - Westminster’s mainstream parties. Corbyn’s Labour, however divided it may be, has 231 MPs in the House of Commons and has enjoyed a surge in support inspired by its leader’s populist, anti-governmental appeal.
SNP and Labour parties autonomous from Cameron
Both parties’ leaders have declared their autonomy from Cameron, despite their shared stance on the EU. Whilst the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon stated that her party would not campaign alongside the PM, whilst leading Labour figures declared similar intentions. Jeremy Corbyn for instance explained his disagreements with the terms of the deal reached between Cameron and EU leaders in Brussels, and Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn said that Labour would “make [its] own arguments in [its] own way”.
Whilst the SNP was never expected to form a political entity with David Cameron on any issue, Labour’s reluctance to share a platform with the PM stems from past shortcomings. The party suffered greatly at the hands of the SNP in last year’s general election after it was branded as the “Red Tory” party following its joint-campaigning with the Conservative government during 2014’s Scottish referendum campaign. Whereas the “No” camp - which fought to keep Scotland inside the United Kingdom - ultimately prevailed, the Labour party which had been campaigning to stay in the UK suffered an immediate backlash when voters returned to the polls months later, losing 40 of its 41 Scottish seats in parliament.
To win, unity is key
Today, the Labour party is once again faced with a dilemma. But its decision will undoubtedly have been affected by last year’s disastrous election result. Whether or not it is willing to unite with other, ideologically different, supporters of the In campaign could have an impact on its fate in 2020’s election, a thought that disturbs many Labour figures.
But should Labour’s concerns extend as far out as 2020? A referendum on the country’s membership of the EU is just across the horizon and needs to be urgently prepared for, and the party’s troubles should go as far as uniting europhiles rather than making a long-term politically motivated calculation.
The temptation of slipping into partisan politics is a luring one, with an almost inevitable outcome. But doing so only endangers the In camp’s narrative. As David Cameron and Labour might both find in their own ways, the struggle to keep Britain a part of the European Union will be hard to win, but very easy to lose.