In the last few days before the Scottish referendum on the 18th of September 2014, Westminster politicians of all parties hurried up to Scotland in a last-ditch effort to save the union. Scots looked from Tory to Labourite, and from Labourite to Tory, and Tory to Labourite again, but to many, it was impossible to tell which was which. For the 45% of Scots who supported independence, Labour made few concessions, nor much effort to appeal to their nationalist instincts. In May 2015, 50% of Scots voted for the SNP, and won fifty-six of the fifty-nine Scottish seats. Scottish Labour were completely routed; their leader, Jim Murphy, failed to win his seat, and the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, lost his seat to 21 year-old Mhairi Black.
Labour cannot make the same mistake with the European referendum. The party must realise that a sizeable chunk of their core support, especially working-class voters, are sceptical about Europe and about uncontrolled immigration. On the left of the party, there are concerns about the EU’s treatment of Greece and Portugal. Even on the centre-left of the party, who are most likely to support Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, many are worried about the EU’s lack of democracy and its protectionist tariffs on non-EU goods. Although the bulk of the MPs are firmly pro-EU, there is not so much consensus amongst Labour voters, and many of the voters who are sceptical are ‘soft’ Labour voters who could be persuaded by the offerings of other parties. Labour would be foolish to make the same mistake they made in Scotland: it must be seen as a party where eurosceptics do not feel as though the party is against them.
Lynton Crosby, the Conservatives’ PR guru, has a political strategy called the ‘wedge strategy’. It involves taking an issue which is divisive in an opposing party and ensuring that it is in the headlines to invoke in-fighting amongst the opposition. Crosby used this strategy during his time campaigning for the right-wing Liberal Party in Australia; he made asylum seekers the central issue of the electoral campaign because he knew that the right was united and had the support of the general public, whereas the left was deeply divided and risked tearing themselves apart over it. The Liberals won the election. There is a temptation for Labour to use Europe as a ‘wedge’ by highlighting their unity on the EU and wrecking further havoc amongst a divided Conservative Party. This would be an error.
Although the Conservatives are divided over the EU, they have done a lot to ensure that eurosceptics do not feel alienated as Conservatives voters or members. Even though there is some genuine dismay from the Tory leadership that Boris has decided to campaign to leave the European Union, it is also important for the Tories that they have prominent MPs open about wanting to leave. UKIP pose much less of a threat to the Conservative vote if voters remain keenly aware that there is not much love for Europe within the Conservative Party. Even amongst those MPs who have come out in favour of remaining in the European Union, it is often done ‘with a heavy heart’, as Sajid Javid wrote in his Mail on Sunday article about why he was supporting the Prime Minister. The Tories know that a lot of their core support is sceptical of the European Union, and Labour must know that, although their voters are less likely to vote Out, there are numbers of voters who will be turned off Labour if they appear too enthusiastically pro-EU.
The Scottish referendum changed Scottish politics completely: the SNP went from a party with fewer than ten seats to over fifty. This should serve as a serious warning for those who assume that UKIP will decline as a political force after the European referendum. The referendum could indeed hurt UKIP, but it could also bolster them. It would be mutually beneficial for the Labour Party and the Leave Campaign to give Labour MPs some of the spotlight in the prelude to the referendum: The Leave Campaign would much more likely to capture left-wing people who are sceptical about Europe if they are seen not to simply be a clique of right-wing xenophobes, and Labour are much more likely to appeal to working-class eurosceptics if they allow their anti-EU MPs to campaign freely for Brexit. The Scottish referendum was a disaster for Labour; the EU referendum doesn’t need to be.