The rival camps are taking shape. Organisations have been launched, slogans road tested and logos commissioned. While no one knows when the EU referendum will take place, everyone has decided it’s time to make their case.
A couple of weeks in, and the similarities between the Leave and Remain camps are as as striking as the differences. Both are quick to underline their patriotism; both go out of their way to emphasise British strength. No one, not even in the ‘remain’ camp, seems particularly fond of the European Union. And – perhaps most importantly – both campaigns are profoundly divided.
On the ‘leave’ side, we have Leave.EU and Vote Leave, run by Matthew Elliott of Taxpayers Alliance fame. While the former is tailored to appeal to the traditional Ukip voter, the latter aspires to broaden the appeal of euroscepticism.
As for the Remainers, Britain Stronger in Europe is now up and running under the stewardship of Sir Stewart Rose. Various pro-European luminaries attended their Brick Lane launch, though the new Labour hierarchy stayed away. Hilary Benn has made it clear he’d prefer to see Labour have its own, separate campaign targeting the concerns of traditional Labour voters.
There are numerous reasons for these divisions. Some are tactical. Public opinion on the EU is confusingly incoherent. For some sceptics, ‘Brussels’ represents a socialist plot intended to undermine the dynamism of British economy. For others, it is is a ‘capitalist conspiracy’ that will remove all social and employment rights.
So both Leavers and Remainers will need to modulate their arguments to appeal to sufficient people with contradictory views to reach the magic 51%. For the leavers, it makes sense to have Ukip appeal to their traditional supporters while Vote Leave reaches out a different constituency. Similarly, while business and pro-EU Tories can mobilise some support, Labour must get out its core voters to ensure Britain remains an EU member.
Yet politics, as ever, is not quite so simple. Key players in the campaign have different objectives. Neither Will Straw of the remain campaign, nor Matthew Elliott are much interested in what happens after the referendum. Their briefs are quite simple: to fight and win the campaign.
This is not the case for either Ukip or Labour. Both have an eye on politics after the poll. Ukip is anxious to maintain the status as an ‘insurgency’ that helped it gain four million votes at the general election. Distance from the Vote Leave campaign thus suits its longer term strategy. Leave.EU has already attacked its rivals in the leave camp for being the voice of the Westminster and business establishments.
Labour, for its part, faces the unenviable task of trying to win the referendum without losing the subsequent politics. Hilary Benn’s reluctance to associate himself with Britain Stronger in Europe was understandable in this light. Labour strategists fear that partnership with an ‘establishment’ campaign including Conservatives would alienate their core support – as it did in Scotland. The beneficiaries this time would be a Ukip all to happy to play the anti-establishment card.
All of which creates a tricky problem of calibration. How to campaign enough to ensure Labour supporters get out and vote without looking to be in partnership with those who seem to regard these very supporters with contempt? A half hearted Labour campaign that results in ‘Lazy Labour’ abstentions could hand the result to the Leavers. A full throated one could be a gift to Ukip. The struggles within the campaigns promise to be every bit as interesting as those between them.
Anand Menon is director of The UK in a Changing Europe