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Lukewarm Labour support risks Cameron's Brexit campaign

18 March 2016, 14:42 CET
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(LONDON) - Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron needs left-wing voters to keep Britain in the European Union in a June referendum, but the opposition Labour leader has so far shown little enthusiasm to deliver them.

Jeremy Corbyn has committed his centre-left Labour Party to campaign against a so-called Brexit, but his personal ambivalence and political calculations have left him dragging his heels.

"You can hardly imagine less activity," said Professor Sara Hobolt of the European Institute at the London School of Economics.

She warned: "If this referendum is going to be won by the government, it's essential that Labour mobilise its voters to turn out actually to vote."

Corbyn supported the "Remain" camp in recognition of the majority opinion in his party, but the lifetime socialist has never hidden his antipathy to the European project.

"Corbyn has suggested that the EU has moved too far toward a 'free market' model," said Matthew Goodwin, professor of political science at the University of Kent.

Opinion polls indicate a slight lead for the "Remain" camp but the result remains in the balance, and up to 20 percent of voters remain undecided.

"Without Labour votes, Britain will be out of Europe and Cameron out of office as the most disastrous prime minister since Lord North lost America," wrote left-wing commentator Polly Toynbee in The Guardian.

- Political calculations -

Personal views aside, Corbyn may be asking himself why he should be helping the prime minister in what is shaping up to be a damaging internal fight for the Conservatives.

A YouGov poll this week put Labour ahead for the first time since the May 2015 election, with analysts blaming in part the squabbles between Cameron and eurosceptics in his party.

"Playing a quieter role may be helpful just now to Jeremy Corbyn," commented YouGov director Anthony Wells and founder Stephan Shakespeare.

YouGov's head of political and social research, Joe Twyman, described Corbyn's position in more blunt terms.

"What he is basically saying is 'I don't care, I don't give a shit and neither should you'," he told AFP.

- Getting out the vote -

Corbyn's apathy is causing concern among Labour campaigners.

"We have to make the case to members and get the vote out," said Alan Johnson, leader of Labour's 'Remain' operation.

He said it was particularly important for the party's trade union supporters to break their silence and focus "on the adverse effects that turning our backs on our continent will have on working people".

Chuka Umunna, a lawmaker who briefly stood for the Labour leadership last year before endorsing one of Corbyn's rivals, acknowledged that the EU is "not perfect".

"But now is not the time for us to sit on our hands -- now is the time for us to fight for the politics of solidarity and collaboration," he said.

A YouGov survey earlier this month found that 43 percent of respondents did not know where Labour stood on the referendum. Even 35 percent of Labour voters were unsure.

In the absence of any clear guidance, many Labour supporters may not bother to vote.

"They might have an incentive to try and punish the government for other things that they are unhappy with," said Hobolt.

Twyman notes that turnout will be crucial -- there is a solid minority for whom a Brexit is important and if only they vote, they are more likely to win.

"If it's 60 percent turnout, around about the level of the general election, then we'll vote to stay because, on current polling, enough people who want to stay will have been actually persuaded to turn out," he said.

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