Radicals and moderates in the referendum

463px-Red_stylized_fist.svgLast week, I wrote about intensity and direction as tensions in the campaign groups: this week I want to look at another faultline, namely that between ‘radicals’ and ‘moderates’.

I use the quote marks, because radicalism is very much in the eye of the beholder, so it is hard to move beyond any subjective interpretation. Indeed, it is precisely that subjective interpretation that matters.

The conventional model of referendums is that moderates tend to hold the upper hand in a campaign, if only because they are associated with the status quo option, which is the status quo exactly because it’s the product of consensual, centrist politics. Of course, that’s not always true – consider the Greek bail-out package votes supported by Syriza, although even in that case the party’s position as the main party of government conferred on it a moderation that previously didn’t exist.

In the British context, the positioning of the moderate centre against the wide fringes of the No camp in 1975 clearly helped with the messaging about the desirability of staying in: would you trust your (uncertain) future to this lot, was the implicit question.

But recent months in British politics have offered up a more confusing picture. Jeremy Corbyn is portrayed as a radical, not least by Nigel Farage, and certainly Corbyn’s hesitation over membership has reinforced that view, even if he avoided making anything of it during this week’s party conference.

Corbyn matters to the Remain campaign in his position as leader of the Opposition, the man best placed to form an alternative government (in the usual course of things): if he came out to speak for leaving the EU, then that confers a degree of respectability that very few others can manage (and that includes Farage). His opposition would also mean that the referendum would tend to be seen as a more narrowly party political fight between Labour and Conservatives, which might force the latter to be more uniformly supportive, but at the cost of building a broad coalition.

In addition, Corbyn’s scepticism (in the non ‘euro-‘ sense) might actually play into helping the Remain campaign. If he comes out at a later stage and says that the renegotiation is good for workers and for Labour, then his conversion might play to highlight the value of membership to a wider audience and would add a very different voice to that of Cameron, Farron and the rest. In this scenario, he becomes the Tsipras figure: brought to recognise that the best option is to be on the inside, fighting, rather than outside, suffering.

Of course, much of this also depends on how Corbyn’s fortunes play out in the coming year: if Labour’s in-fighting gets out of control, then he might become a liability, rather than an asset.

The scramble for the centre ground is clear on both sides right now. The Leavers need to find an organisation that best represents that position, even if the narrower Leave.eu group is the one with the better resources. But it’s also true for the Remainers: they might have been more circumspect so far, but at some point they will have to come out fighting and their path is not without dangers.