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The Liberal Democrats' IN-OUT Gamble

The message at the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference in York at the weekend could not have been clearer: the LibDems are the Party of IN — the EU, that is. For those of us who have suffered bruising past European election campaigns, in which the Party’s pro-European light was hidden under a bushel, this is a huge relief, indeed something to be proud of. But of course it is a gamble. Even if the Party hierarchy and key activists accept that Britain’s future and economic success lie in Europe that doesn’t mean all LibDem voters share that opinion. Some who vote LibDem locally are indeed Euro-sceptic. Some will even be tempted to vote UKIP. There are therefore two challenges that the LibDems have to face over the remaining weeks before the 22 May elections: (1) to get the message out to LibDem voters WHY being IN is good for Britain, and (2) to woo voters who normally back other parties — especially moderate Conservatives who are alarmed by Tory Euro-scepticism — to lend their vote for this European election. As so much of the right-leaning Press is Euro-hostile, LibDem campaigners will have to get that message across themselves, through literature and on the doorstep. I believe the strategy of polarising the debate on Europe — with the LibDems as the Party of IN and UKIP as the Party of OUT — is absolutely right. Whereas purists might argue that the election ought to be about the finer points of EU policy and institutional reform, for many electors it will be seen as a sort of IN/OUT referendum. The televised debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage could potentially be a game-changer, though like the strategy as a whole it is a gamble. But in politics, as in business, one sometimes needs to take risks, and Nick Clegg and campaign overseer Tim Farron deserve credit for having the courage of their Euro-convictions.

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