This post is part of a series of diaries from Chris Bruni-Lowe, co-founder and campaign director at the People's Pledge campaign. You can read others in the series here
It’s been a hectic first week. We now have a local office set up, have printed our first leaflet and are preparing canvassing data for our first official week of door-knocking. After two months of pounding the pavement in Thurrock with the bitterly cold wind and temperatures of early spring, we are now fortunate to be kicking off our Manchester and Stockport campaign in 25 degree weather.
Thurrock was indeed a watershed moment for the referendum movement (that constituency campaign is covered in detail in my first diary entry here) but the last few days here in Manchester have shown how far that result has really taken us. Our initial launch in Thurrock was – by design – under the radar. Our success has ensured that this can no longer be the case. The local campaign launch in Cheadle had everything - apart from the local Lib Dem MPs – although to be honest we didn’t really hold out much hope for them. A host of other politicians were present however, including Greater Manchester MPs Graham Stringer (Labour) and David Nuttall (Conservative), along with a host of supportive local councillors.
There really is a huge expectation with these referendum votes in particular, given our success in Thurrock; a positive result with respectable turnout is now seen as the minimum. But beyond our campaign activity on the ground, what is particularly significant is how far the EU referendum debate has progressed over the last month. Following on from our push to make this issue front and centre, the national political atmospherics have exploded. The interventions of Lord Mandelson, Peter Hain and Ed Balls have put a serious meat on the bones of a strategy that we at the Pledge have focused heavily on during the past year – building support for a referendum within the Labour Party and encouraging the wider debate on our EU membership. This has undoubtedly been enhanced by our efforts towards building a truly cross-party coalition of supporters for a referendum.
For every John Redwood (who signed up a few days ago) that backs our referendum Pledge, there has to be a Jon Cruddas doing the same. Cruddas signing the Pledge has had significant an impact here in Manchester. Anyone who underestimates what effect this has had should ask the Labour councillors in the area: the interventions of Cruddas et al have changed the way an EU referendum is viewed, particularly by those on the left. No longer is a referendum considered to be embraced by and belonging to the domain of the eurosceptic right - recent events demonstrate its centre of gravity is being pulled towards the europhile left, and firmly into the mainstream consciousness.
There has of course been some resistance from some on the left to the actions of Cruddas, Mandelson et al. Over the last few weeks several blogs have been written to this effect, likely as an attempt to halt the wave of pro-referendum developments within the Labour Party. They talk of “Miliband playing with fire” and being “irresponsible” in allowing the media to run away with the story of Labour trying to pip the Tories to a referendum in seeking an electoral advantage. They miss the point however, failing to see that this could be seen more about backing a policy in line with the views of the majority of their members and traditional voters than about simply trying to opportunistically outmanoeuvre the Conservatives. Opinion polls have consistently shown that amongst all major parties an EU referendum is backed by a majority (all be it to different degrees) of grassroots and party members.
So amongst this fraught but exciting and encouraging backdrop, the Pledge is setting out to take Manchester and Stockport by storm. We have our first canvassing session later this week, and it should be an eye-opener for all involved. The three Liberal Democrat seats in question have notably different dynamics, with the Lib Dems trying to hold off the Conservatives in Cheadle and Hazel Grove and fighting off Labour in Withington. The top brass of all three major parties, not to mention the local and national media, will be keeping a close eye on how the votes turn out in this highly-charged political environment.
Unlike Thurrock, we are hitting the ground running with some positive early results, with 12 local councillors already signing the Pledge. I might add that two of these councillors are Liberal Democrats. I can’t resist mentioning that a Lib Dem councillor did turn up to our Cheadle launch, yet managed to avoid being included in any of the group pictures. Either he was engaging in a spot of reconnaissance in order to report back on our movements or he suffers from a form of photophobia – I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
The next big question is how a referendum on the EU will be received on the doorstep in Greater Manchester – ill keep you all posted.