Before we have a date for the European Union (EU) referendum, the question to be asked is changed. Until now voters were going to decide on a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question as to whether Britain should remain a member of the EU. Now, after an intervention from the Electoral Commission, voters will be asked whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the EU or leave it. There will be no chance for a positive yes to be connected with continuing membership.
The change is small but significant and ominous for those of us who want the UK to stay in the EU. In any referendum campaign, smart strategists fret and scheme over the wording on the ballot paper. Indeed the first question they ask is: “What’s the question?” In Scotland, leading nationalists were delighted when they succeeded in making ‘yes’ a vote for independence. In what will be another highly charged referendum on Europe, when those wanting to leave will have most of the populist tunes, the pro-Europeans had derived some comfort from a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ choice on the ballot paper. They have lost that strategic advantage.
This may seem a small pebble thrown into the current wild seas of UK politics. But the pebble is part of a destabilising pattern. Nothing is certain any more. Strange, unpredictable eruptions occur. Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) soar after losing the referendum in Scotland. Jeremy Corbyn is about to become leader of the Labour party. United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) won the most recent European elections in terms of votes cast. Indeed, Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on the EU in the first place was a symptom of political turbulence and one that will now fuel the storms. Offering a referendum often calms a political situation; holding one triggers volcanic eruptions.
Fearing such eruptions, Cameron did not want to offer an in/out referendum but was forced to do so by the rise of Ukip and internal party divisions. We know he did not want one because his government had already passed legislation offering referendums on all future treaties that ceded further powers. He had hoped such a law would be enough. In these unruly times, a law of historic significance was nowhere near enough.
The change in the referendum question is like that original decision to offer the plebiscite: a symptom of wider turbulence, and an act that whips up the storms. No 10 accepted the recommendations of the Electoral Commission within a second or two. It need not have done so. After all it has the precedence of Scotland, where there was a ‘yes’/ ‘no’ question. But evidently Cameron does not want a battle with his Eurosceptic backbenchers over this when there are bigger political fights to be had as his modest renegotiation takes shape.
With such a tiny overall majority and more heated debates to come, Cameron’s decision to accept the new question makes complete sense. But why was such a challenge from the Electoral Commission not anticipated by No 10 in the first place? A question that was set is now unset. Ukip is delighted. Those who want out win a preliminary skirmish. What could go wrong next?
The answer is worryingly predictable: the framing of the message on the case to remain part of Europe is what will go wrong next. It is already going wrong. Some of the key advocates, or potential advocates, are advancing such incoherent or contradictory arguments that they risk leaving parts of the stage for Nigel Farage to dance on alone. Farage says he is against the free movement of labour within the EU, and the only way of dealing with this is to withdraw. He is right. Other EU members are not going to give much or any ground on the free movement of labour. Yet, at the weekend, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, insisted that only European migrants with a job lined up should be allowed into the UK. May wrote in the Sunday Times: “Net migration from within the EU has more than doubled ... That is why this government’s renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU is so important.” But she must know Cameron’s renegotiation is not going to get very far in limiting freedom of movement. What will she say when he comes back with terms that do not impose significant new constraints? We know what Farage will say.
The Conservatives’ confused position on immigration extends well beyond May’s contorted intervention. On the whole, the post-Thatcherite party approves of free markets, bemoaning regulation or state intervention in any form — except in the case of labour markets, where it seeks sweeping controls that it cannot secure.
Partly in response to the Conservatives’ contradictory approach, Labour’s position in relation to the EU will also become more ambiguous if Corbyn is the next leader. He has raised some valid points about Cameron’s renegotiating priorities. They are not his priorities. The era in which New Labour seized on “Europe” uncritically as a cause to replace other ideological convictions is over. That does not mean Corbyn will campaign to leave the EU — although he might — but that Labour’s position and arguments will be very different from Cameron’s. The chorus of varying arguments may help the campaign to stay in, but there is a high chance that the diverging claims will convey confusion and incoherence when voters seek at least the appearance of inspiring clarity.
Referendums in the UK never go to plan. The 1975 referendum in favour of continued membership of the European Economic Community (or common market) resolved nothing. The one in Scotland fuelled nationalism. There is never a good time for a government to hold a referendum; and this is a particularly precarious time. Yesterday’s pebble will not be the last.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd