Some nasty tactics have already appeared in the European Union referendum campaign.
One is the way that anti-EU campaigners try to bully or discredit their opponents, rather than discuss the issues. Their response to any message they do not like is to threaten, dismiss or try to silence the messenger – whether that be businesses, universities, charities, the BBC, trade unions or even the government. If an organisation points out how EU membership benefits its area of work, it is immediately labelled as being in the pay of ‘Brussels’. Anyone who raises concerns about the possible consequences of leaving is labelled a scaremonger. If a government leaflet puts forward arguments to remain, they condemn the cost of the leaflet and demand it be scrapped, rather than engage with the arguments. And so on.
Pro-Europeans must, of course, continue to make the positive case for our EU membership. There is plenty to talk about: jobs, prosperity, peace, democracy, security, cooperation among neighbours. But equally, we must not be bullied away from spelling out ways in which leaving the EU would be a catastrophe. There is indeed much to be fearful about: not so much Project Fear as Project Reality.
Of course, we have always had to contend with the fact-free, anti-European bias of many of Britain’s dominant newspapers. That bias is now openly flaunted by the likes of the Mail and the Express, with their increasingly shrill headlines and rarely even a gesture towards balanced journalism. But the nature of media reporting on the referendum campaign so far has also highlighted a couple of more subtle problems.
First, most reporting in recent weeks – even by the more sensible broadcast media – has been focused on the battle of personalities between the two sides of the Tory civil war over Europe. When the governing party is so dramatically split, I can sympathise with the desire to watch, for some with glee. But this is a vital debate about the future of our country, not something that should be reduced to a political spectator sport. Besides, the relentless focus on Conservative divisions is in danger of drowning out the overwhelmingly positive positions of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru – not to mention the many non-political voices from trade unions to universities to businesses.
Along the same lines, the BBC seems to have decided that the requirements of balance are satisfied by pairing every pro-EU business with an anti-EU one, every pro-EU Labour spokesperson with an anti-EU one, and so on. But when a particular cohort overwhelmingly favours one side over the other – as is the case with both the Labour party and British businesses – it is actually misleading to present the two sides as if they were evenly split.
A similar problem arises from the BBC’s increasing tendency to pair every claim with a counter-claim, making no effort to analyse which claim is better supported by evidence. This leaves well-meaning viewers baffled about which side to believe, even on fairly straightforward factual matters like the amount of money we spend at European level.
So are there any positives at this stage? One or two. The most obvious is the fact that most polls have consistently shown a modest lead for Remain – though it is still too close to call.
Another is the fact that, despite everything, the Brexit campaign has not actually made much of the running over the past couple of months. Its internal divisions are one reason for this. It has been several fragmented groups, each previously focused on trying to win the Electoral Commission’s blessing and the funding that comes with it.
But the bigger reason is that, even though they try to downplay it, there is a huge contradiction at the heart of the Brexit argument about what they actually want.
Some of them say that we should leave the EU but remain a partial member of the EU single market. We would then be like Norway – still able to export most goods to Europe tariff-free, but in return following all the EU’s rules and contributing to its shared budget, while giving up our power to shape those rules and decide how the money is spent.
Others among them, realising that that is not a very attractive option, glibly say we should sever ourselves entirely from Europe and ‘go global’. But we would then have to try to make up for losing our tariff-free access to our main export market, by going cap in hand to other countries around the world, pleading for trade deals that are somehow better than the ones we have already negotiated through our EU membership, with the clout of the world’s largest market behind us.
The problem is not just that these alternatives are flatly contradictory – it is that neither is remotely realistic. No wonder they want to keep off the facts and attack their opponents instead!
Richard Corbett MEP is deputy leader of the British Labour members of the European parliament. He tweets@RCorbettMEP