Labour's 'In' Campaign Must Be Smarter and More Honest Than the Tories

01/03/2016 17:26 GMT | Updated 02/03/2017 10:12 GMT

As a rule, it isn't very smart politics to insult the intelligence of the electorate. Voters will usually forgive a bit of spurious sloganising at election times, on the grounds that politicians can't help themselves, while being largely immune to it. But when it comes to a serious debate like that over the European Union they deserve better and, on the Tory side at least, they are not getting it.

The early skirmishes of this long referendum campaign have been fought largely within the fractious ranks of the government. If it weren't so serious, it would be funny to see David Cameron, who has never previously had a good word to say for the European project, slapping down the EU's critics. Meanwhile Boris Johnson, who can be genuinely funny, asks us to take seriously his volte face from 'not an outer' to 'out for good' (via 'out to get back in again').

They are fighting as if their political lives depended on it, because they do.

By comparison the Labour IN campaign has received relatively little publicity, despite having one of politics' great communicators, Alan Johnson, at the helm. It's been rather like a worthy but dull BBC4 documentary up against the high drama of Eastenders on at the same time.

Labour' team shouldn't be worried by this. The campaign to remain will be won by long and patient argument or it won't be won at all. Euro-waverers are not going to be convinced by histrionics but by persuasion, and that will take time.

So Jeremy Corbyn was absolutely right to say he has a different argument to make to David Cameron's. It was unfortunate that on the weekend of the Labour IN campaign event, it was Corbyn's appearance at a mass CND rally that grabbed most of the headlines. As I've argued here before, Labour is in no position to change Britain's nuclear defence policy, but it does have the power and responsibility to swing the argument in favour of Britain's membership of the EU.

To do that Labour can and must be smarter than the Tories as well as being more credible. For them it's all 'Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail'. Tory 'inners' spread fear of the consequences of leaving; Tory 'outers' can't disguise their loathing of the EU and all its doings. Neither is an honest position.

Labour pro-Europeans should be prepared to admit that it's perfectly possible for Britain to go it alone, but to argue that it's neither desirable nor sensible for us to do so. We should respect the sincerity of those who have yet to make up their minds by acknowledging that neither side has all the answers. People are right to weigh up the pros and cons, and for many it will come down to a judgement that on balance the advantages of EU membership outweigh the disadvantages, or vice versa.

The overwhelming majority of Labour MPs, councillors and activists are in favour of staying in. For enthusiastic pro-Europeans like me, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. For more reluctant converts like Jeremy Corbyn the arguments are more finely balanced. But recognising that range of opinions works in our favour not against us.

Put plainly, nobody has any reason to love everything the EU does, but everybody has something to be thankful to the EU for.

Labour - united (for once) in the conclusion we have come to - can afford to have not one conversation with our supporters and those we seek to win over, but many.

To those for whom the environment is the most pressing issue of the day, the impact of EU laws and directives has been a major benefit across the continent. If protecting rights at work and resisting the influence of the multi-nationals is your priority, the EU is on your side. If the protection of human rights in general, or LGBT rights in particular, motivate you then the European External Action Service has a better record than most national governments.

Over the next few months, by having all of these conversations and more, Labour activists can be the decisive factor in a national campaign. That will feel good for a change. And because the UK is one huge constituency, for once it doesn't matter where they live. Their work on the doorsteps will make a difference.

By having an honest discussion with the voters, Labour has a much-needed opportunity to get a hearing, to win back some credibility as a serious party, and above all to do the right thing by Britain.