First published on the Fabian blog
A referendum is in so many ways just like any other elections. There are polling booths, ballot papers. You win by getting more votes than your opponent. With only two candidates one side needs an outright majority, technically just one would do. The question in the voters mind when casting their ballot is not necessary about the direct choice in front of them. We know general elections are not about selfish interests but a broader national interest. Voter balance good leadership and ability to run the economy. Some parties aim to be ahead on both. This referendum must link the pounds in people’s pockets to a bigger vision about what is best for Britain and her national interest.
At the same time referendums can be totally different. There are no candidates, constituency agents and obvious leadership in given geographic areas. And herein lies the problem.
The LabourIn and StrongerIn campaigns have the same problem. An agency problem and an activist problem. Meaning they have not got enough volunteers to run a field operation because nobody thinks it’s their job to save Britain’s place in the EU.
There is serious need for a Lord Kitchener style ‘your country needs you’ poster from LabourIn. Party members should be served with conscription letters. Why? Because this is our fight: we might not have wanted the referendum in the first place but neither do we want a vote to leave and all the vitriol of the UKIP-Tory right if they win. Door knocking and convincing the swing voters will make a huge different. May of them voted Labour last month and last year. Getting a ground campaign going will mean the forces of ‘remain’ can turn out their vote on polling day – which polls say might be enough – but effective field operations does and will convince people.
I was pleasantly surprised when doing LabourIn campaigning in Ilford North last week. Not only is Redbridge borough supposedly the third most anti-EU part of the capital – behind Having and Ealing – but Ilford North, having recently represented by a Tory MP who pushed the EU referendum heavily in his 2015 campaign and neighbouring Iain Duncan Smith’s seat, will be a key battle ground. We were met with voters who were hurrying us away from their doors. Not in disgust but encouraging us to knock on more doors to get others to vote to stay too. There were voters who had clearly discussed it as a family and were allowing the young members of the family not just an equal say but a leading one. One dad is going to vote ‘remain’ because he daughter has asked him to as she missed out on a ballot of her own by just 18 days. Some undecided ended the conversation by convincing me why we should stay and others were genuinely on the fence but open to persuasion.
From the joint Progress and Labour Movement for Europe training around the country, it seem the reticence from Labour remainers is that it cannot be a pleasant experience to go doorknocking knowing immigration is going to be voters key concern. I understand this. But it does not have to be foreboding.
The key with any conversations about immigration with voters is this: they are not wrong to be concerned and we are not wrong to have a different view. The problem comes when canvassers tell voters they are wrong or they without sufficient facts, worse we know better. The best reply is simply: ‘how does immigration affect your life and community’. This invites a change in tone and an opportunity for an exchange of views that in the most part of positive and constructive.
Ultimately the campaign will come down to a choice. Is immigration key voters do not like, more problematic than the dire economic consequences of leaving a trading block of 500 million consumers when the wider economy is still fragile. The national campaigns are pushing at each sides’ distinct frame every day.
Labour members on the doorstep can in person made a more person, more progressive, more visionary case that ‘by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we do alone’. Our work will make the different and critically move the dial. There is much worry about a Scottish National party-like backlash against UK Labour for keeping Britain in the EU as their was when Scottish Labour saved the UK union. If Labour can replicate a general election effort for the EU referendum ahead of the 23 June poll, they can move the dial so significantly that like the Alternative Vote referendum did for electoral reform, the convincing majority kills the Brexit argument for a generation. Do not hold back. Your country needs you.