Labour must not allow the EU referendum to be about deciding whether or not Polish plumbers or Latvian taxi drivers are allowed to claim tax credits. Rather, we must ensure that we make this a referendum about what sort of country we want to live in, and what sort of nation we want the United Kingdom to be. This referendum must be about what it means to be British in the 21st century. And the choice will be clear and stark: are we as a people going to confirm that we are open, confident and happy to embrace and shape the world as it is, or are we going to turn in on ourselves, pull up the drawbridge and sail off into the mid-Atlantic? It is, of course, essential that the ‘Yes’ campaign wins the EU referendum, but the manner of our victory is at least as important as the result. The pro-EU camp must learn the lesson of the Scottish referendum campaign, which in the end delivered a pretty convincing win, but which somehow failed to fire the imagination.
Our campaign must be clear why and how exit would be a disaster in terms of the economy, but it must do more than that. It must appeal to the heart at least as much as it does to the head. It must make the patriotic case for the UK’s membership of the EU, and must be rooted in the argument that nationalism is in fact the antithesis of patriotism. It must state unequivocally that we are not a nation of quitters, we are a nation with a proud history of international engagement. ‘Leading, Not Leaving’ should be our drumbeat.
The prevalent trend of the last 15–20 years has been the rise of identity politics. Nationalism and xenophobia have been on the rise across Europe, and this is why we should embrace our EU referendum as a golden opportunity to tackle those ‘forces of darkness’ head on. We can and must win the argument by telling a positive, uplifting story about what it means to be both British and European. Our point of departure must be to acknowledge that the EU is far from perfect, and is in need of deep and far-reaching reform. But, as Alan Johnson has said, reform is a process, not an event. There are a myriad of examples of how the UK has brought its influence to bear in order to secure reform over the course of the four decades of our membership of the European community of nations, and it will be essential that we bring these to the fore during the referendum campaign. There are also many instances of how Europe has brought its influence to bear on us in a positive sense, with the Social Chapter being the most prominent example. Moreover, leaving the EU would vastly diminish the UK’s influence in the world. It would probably lead to us losing our permanent seat on the UN Security Council, our relationship with the US would be damaged beyond repair, and we would effectively be removing ourselves from all the key global conversations that impact directly and profoundly on our national interests and security: climate change, cross-border crime and terrorism, energy, Russia, Iran, the list goes on…
The ‘Leave’ campaign is sure to exploit the current refugee crisis to make the case for Brexit, and to dredge up some of the toxic language that has unfortunately been a feature of the immigration debate. A fact-based approach is the only way to combat this, and the simple fact of the matter is that the economic migrants and would-be asylum seekers who are currently waiting at Calais and trying to get across the Channel are not EU citizens with Schengen visas. Thus Brexit will not make it easier to keep those people out – it will only make it harder for the UK to influence the debate, and to contribute to reaching a human solution to the crisis. Stated in starker terms: maintaining a positive and co-operative relationship with the French government is of central importance in the context of what is happening in Calais; do we think that relationship would be improved or damaged by Brexit…?
In addition to making the patriotic case against Brexit, we must also make the hard-headed economic arguments about the way in which our membership of the EU brings jobs and investment to our country. Recent polling conducted by the Labour ‘Yes’ campaign indicates that potential leavers are sceptical of the economic arguments because they only see that we are a net creditor to the EU budget. It is essential that we explain what we get in return for this membership fee in terms of tariff-free access to the world’s largest internal market. And we must also place greater emphasis on the point that our membership of the EU delivers vastly reduced administrative and management costs for our export-oriented businesses, as it enables them to deal with one harmonised set of norms and standards, as opposed to 27.
Scotland has taught us that the pro-union case is not always the easy one to make, as it tends to be more subtle and nuanced, whereas the separatist case tends to be more tangible (eg appealing to narrow definitions of identity, rallying against an imaginary imperial master, tapping into fear of ‘people who are not like us’, and so on.). As with the Scottish referendum, the debate will take place in multiple theatres, and will range across the economy, identity, sovereignty, Britain’s role in the world, cultural values and so on. By thinking ahead we can define which theatres we want to channel the debate towards, how we want to frame the debates in each, and how we build a narrative of progressive patriotism that will prove compelling across the broad swathe of the electorate. We need to make this choice early and objectively. We cannot afford to get it wrong, and this cannot be a standard political campaign, solely about politicians. If we can create, objectively and comprehensively, a winning positioning, messaging and communications strategy that connects with the target audience, then Labour can make a truly significant contribution to securing the emphatic win that is required.