The three challenges for those who want a NO vote
It has been generally accepted that the â€˜Outâ€™ side currently face an uphill fight to try and win the referendum which will be held at some point over the next two or so years. Whilst there is overwhelming support in the country for reform of the EU and strong, but minority, support for leaving, unless the â€˜Outâ€™ side can produce a convincing argument as to why life will be better outside, they are not going to turn around the 25% or so of public opinion they need to convince in order to achieve their aims.
So what steps should â€˜Outâ€™ be taking over the next few months to try and maximise their vote?
Firstly â€“ and perhaps most obviously – they need to actually start working together as an organised campaign. There are dozens of different groups and organisations, all of which are committed to leaving the EU, which could play an important part in the campaign. The trouble is that at the moment there is no single campaign organisation, no clear leadership and not even the start of a move to create these basic structures. Someone needs to sit down and start making phone calls to create an umbrella body which will coordinate and run the Out campaign with as wide a support base as possible. If this is not done soon then the natural result is that this task will default to the one political party that has consistently campaigned for Out â€“ UKIP. And at that point I am afraid I believe the battle will already have been lost.
Which brings us to the second step: A credible leader. Whilst many in UKIP believe this is the task that Nigel Farage was created for, this is certainly not a view that is universally held, even within the â€˜Outâ€™ movement. Moreover, it has to be recognised that for every voter for whom Farage is an attraction there are probably at least two or three more for whom he is a definite turnoff. Although UKIP gained four million votes at the General Election this is a tiny number compared to what will be needed to win a referendum and a â€˜core voteâ€™ strategy in this instance is obviously a non starter. So the question is how do the â€˜Outâ€™ side reach out to the non-UKIP Eurosceptics and the undecided?
There are two possibilities here. The first would be to go with a politician from another party â€“ with all respect to Douglas Carswell, for whom I have a huge amount of time, his membership of UKIP carries with it similar baggage to Nigel Farage. When looking at possible candidates there are three who particularly spring to mind. The first two are from Labour; Frank Field and Kate Hoey. Both are very well respected long serving Labour MPs who have appeal far beyond their party and are known to be independent thinkers. With either of them in charge of the Out campaign there would be a great chance to attract left of centre Eurosceptics who might otherwise be put off by an apparent right of centre leader. Both do however have potential issues â€“ Frank Field has had health problems recently whilst Kate Hoey is on record as saying that, whilst she might support Out, she would prefer if possible to stay in a reformed EU. That sort of mixed messaging could provide a hostage to fortune. The other alternative from politics is the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. A long time advocate of leaving the EU he is articulate and supremely well informed about the EU and its failings. But again, it has to be recognised that he too has potential issues, not least his comments about the NHS made in the USA a few years ago.
That then leaves possible leaders from outside politics. The appointment of a business leader such as James Dyson or the JCB chairman Lord Bamford would send a message that businesses need not be afraid of Britain leaving the EU. These and many other hugely successful business leaders are advocates of leaving the EU and it is their voice that should be heard to counter the myths about millions of jobs lost or companies leaving the UK.
Once the organisation and leadership are in place the emphasis needs to be on looking forward not back. As has been pointed out many times on here, Out will only win if they can present a unified and credible prospect for Britainâ€™s future outside the EU. This means a future that ensures a continuation of trade links without the political interference that characterises our current relationship with our European neighbours. For me the only sensible alternative is membership of EFTA and through it the EEA. This would allow people to understand simply what the relationship with our European neighbours and the rest of the World would be after we left the EU. It would go a long way to negating the scaremongering about isolation and loss of business and would provide a solid platform on which to build the rest of the â€˜Better Off Outâ€™ message.
The most obvious and oft cited argument against this is that it will not deal with the issue of immigration. This is a challenge that needs to be addressed head on. Yes there is free movement of peoples in the EEA but in that case, on this narrow issue, it is no different to our current EU membership. Whilst there may be a significant minority of people for whom immigration is the main driver of Euroscepticism, I believe that many of those would, in the end, vote to leave anyway and that therefore the numbers who would vote against leaving because the alternative still allowed for free movement is very small. That is not to say this would not be a challenge but it is one that would have to be dealt with early on in formulating the Out campaign so that the position in favour of EFTA membership, for all that some may not see it as perfect, is the one that is presented to the public during the debate.
Obviously there are many issues and external events that could derail either side of the debate over the next 12 -24 months. But the â€˜Outâ€™ side has to ensure that it does not make the task of winning the referendum any more difficult than it already is by establishing these three key points â€“ organisation, leadership and message â€“ as quickly and as effectively as possible.