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Thursday 3rd May 2012 | 11:51
WORDS: JOHN ASHMORE
What do Boris Johnson, Mike Hancock, Keith Vaz and Caroline Lucas (right) have in common?
It sounds like one for the annual lobby quiz, and the answer might surprise even the keenest political anorak. Each of them has signed the People’s Pledge, an EU-centric campaign that has managed to garner over 110,000 signatures in the space of just over 12 months.
The idea of the campaign is twofold. On the one hand, it’s about getting voters to promise only to vote for candidates who back a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. The corollary of that is getting MPs and candidates themselves to sign the pledge. Sixty four have done so far, so there is clearly still some way to go before the Commons is abuzz with talk of a euro referendum.
The Pledge recently scored its first big victory in a mini-referendum in the Essex seat of Thurrock, where 90 per cent voted in favour of a referendum, albeit on a turnout of around 30 per cent. Judging by the polls, it is still a considerably higher figure than those concerned about House of Lords reform, a referendum on which is nevertheless being mooted by some in Westminster.
The plan is to have another 13 mini-referenda to prepare the ground for a bigger campaign incorporating around 100 constituencies. The tactics are simple: hit the streets in marginal constituencies with a clear question – “Do you want a referendum on the EU?” – and see if voters bite. All the votes are overseen by the Electoral Reform Service to guard against any suggestion of partiality.
There is no particular political or geographical bias in the seats under consideration – the three biggest parties are more or less evenly distributed, while the SNP’s Angus McNeil and Alliance’s Naomi Long may also welcome the Pledge to their home turf.
Whether MPs react positively to being chosen remains to be seen, but Labour’s Julie Hilling, whose Bolton West seat is among potential targets, has already publicly declared the Pledge “a very expensive distraction” from more pressing economic issues.
The campaign is the brainchild of Christopher Bruni-Lowe, a former Conservative party agent who worked on Joanne Cash’s campaign for Westminster North in 2010 and also helped out in a less formal capacity on Zac Goldsmith’s campaign in Richmond Park.
But this is by no means a Tory project. One of the remarkable things about the campaign is that its supporters come from across the political spectrum. The director is former Tribune editor Mark Seddon and head of communications is Ian McKenzie, a former special adviser to Lord Prescott.
Only the most inclusive of campaigns would manage to unite Green leader Lucas with right-wingers like Douglas Carswell and Philip Davies.
How can they succeed where two million people failed to stop the UK going to war in Iraq? The key, for Bruni-Lowe, is not numbers per se – although he expects to hit 250,000 signatures this year – but the strategy of putting pressure on individual MPs. He argues that if all of those who marched against the Iraq war had been organised on the same sort of basis as the Pledge, the Stop the War Coalition might have had considerably more success.
It is also possible that most MPs in 2003 felt more secure in their posts than the current crop. The prospect of boundary changes and the rise of smaller parties, along with the phenomenal success of George Galloway in Bradford, have shown that no members can rest on their laurels.
Ironically, the party the People’s Pledge could hurt most is the party most strongly associated with European politics, UKIP. The three main parties uniting around a referendum would mean Nigel Farage’s party could lose their status as an outlet for disgruntled Eurosceptics.
Despite the popularity of Twitter and the increasingly digital nature of political campaigning, Bruni-Lowe says the old-fashioned knocking on doors has proven most effective for the Pledge.
“The new media stuff is very important, but actually it’s getting out there and talking to people. We’ve found the most effective way of signing people up is actually talking to them on their doorstep”, he said.
“Obviously Facebook is a great medium, as is Twitter, but they’re generally for people who are already on side who have already found you.”
And he thinks the People’s Pledge strategy of lobbying individual MPs could bear fruits for other campaigners.
“I think high-speed rail, you name it, the concept of signing people up in their thousands by constituency and comparing it to an MP’s majority is very novel, but I think it’ll happen more often.”
Although many a prominent Eurosceptic has signed, including the Mayor of London, the campaign is at pains to point out that this is not Eurosceptic. Rather it is about giving people a voice on an issue which has not been debated since Ted Heath took Britain into Europe in 1974.
Indeed, among signatories to the Pledge so far is the former Europe minister, Keith Vaz, who describes himself as “a firm believer in the European Union”. Vaz says there is a “disconnect” between Westminster and the rest of the public over Europe and it is high time the issue was debated.
The chair of the Home Affairs committee sees a real risk in pro-Europeans being “defensive” and not doing enough to extol the virtues of integration. He feels this cedes the battleground to the likes of UKIP, who he admits are “very effective campaigners”.
“One of the things I did when minister for Europe was going round the country encouraging people to talk about the EU and the only time we talk about the EU is when something goes wrong, then that’s not having a proper debate and discussion.”
These sentiments are echoed by another prominent supporter, and Eurosceptic, Zac Goldsmith, who said: “Whatever politicians and some media maintain, our relationship with the EU is hugely important to a great many people” .Not least his own family – father Sir James Goldsmith was something of a Eurosceptic hero back in the 1990s.
Where some of the MPs would stand in the event of a referendum is something of a moot point. Goldsmith says he would favour “radical decentralizsation”, and failing that, withdrawal from the EU.
Mike Hancock, the only Liberal Democrat to sign so far, says he wants “to stay in Europe for sure” but with “changes”. How this tallies with the much simpler In/Out referendum the pledgers would like remains to be seen.
One MP who says she is sure about leaving the EU is Labour’s Kate Hoey. She says her party has been stuck for too long in “this Blairite thing of being good Europeans”, leaving it detached from Labour’s voters, who she says are “much more Eurosceptic than our leadership”.
Having said that, she says she thinks the Labour leadership has started “to wake up and smell the coffee” on Europe, a theory corroborated in part by Patrick O’Flynn of the Express, who recently reported that Miliband is considering committing to a referendum in Labour’s next manifesto. Should this come to pass, the team at the Pledge might consider it job done and time to move on to the serious business of the referendum campaign itself.
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