Better together: Separate campaigns in EU vote are petty party tribalism


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Is it better to have one, or two or more campaigns to keep Britain in Europe? Andy Burnham, a Labour leadership contender, seems determined that his party should run its own “Labour Yes” affair, and let the other parties, business organisations and the rest go their own ways.

This is depressing. Mr Burnham says he does not want David Cameron to “define” the campaign; yet that is what will happen if Mr Cameron does not have to share platforms with senior Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrat figures, as well as a smattering of celebs and business people, in a unified Yes movement. As Prime Minister he will be prominent in the campaign whether Mr Burnham likes it or not. It is far better, all round, therefore, to have the campaign led by someone less obviously partisan. That means a cross-party organisation, without a serving party leader heading it.

It is poignant to reflect that Charles Kennedy, had his health been better, and restored to his full powers, would have made a popular leader for such a grouping. David Miliband, Alan Johnson, Ken Clarke or Paddy Ashdown could also prove effective. Mr Burnham’s argument is based on the Scottish referendum campaign, when Labour shared a pro-Union platform with Conservatives. This is supposed to have contributed to the closeness of that vote, and Labour’s later annihilation by the SNP.

Even if this was true, it will not be true for the European referendum. The appropriate lesson of history dates back to the 1975 referendum. The Yes campaign then had a formidable alliance of cross-party talent, and made the most of it, with a coherent message.

A similar team could easily be assembled now – provided the tribal instincts of the likes of Mr Burnham can be subdued for a few weeks, and provided Mr Cameron suspends collective cabinet responsibility for the duration. The future of Britain in Europe is far too important for Labour – or the Tories – to be playing party games with.