This article is from the June 2012 issue of Total Politics
In the run up to the last general election, the message from UKIP, who championed the phrase “sod the lot”, was clear: “We are not like them, we are different.” The party had successfully portrayed themselves as Westminster outsiders and political underdogs intent on gatecrashing a majority Conservative government.
They were a haven for the disaffected – that was the pitch and it partly worked. More than 900,000 people voted for them, an increase of more than 50 per cent on the last election and, according to most analysts, the UKIP presence did cost the Conservatives a dozen or so seats. Among some Tory commentators, the latest rise of UKIP in the polls – backed by the increased vote share in the council elections earlier this May – should indeed serve as cause to rush back to the right and reclaim its lost voters. The European Union and a referendum on our membership are seen to be the chosen hook which, if addressed, can bring the disaffected back into the Conservative fold.
With the decline in party membership and the intensification of activity and influence of single issue and special groups, UKIP’s decision to move rapidly away from a sole message of EU withdrawal to that of a multiplicity of policies means they have chosen the long game. They will compete with the main parties on everything from the important to the mundane.
There has existed for some time the need for an apolitical, fully-inclusive voice for the EU referendum movement – one which does not bring with it political baggage and which can unite left and right. When was the last time you heard Jon Cruddas MP and Keith Vaz MP talking about the need for a referendum on the EU? They are leading the charge yet are rarely on the mainstream media’s go-to list for commentary. The case for a referendum from the left is seldom reported – this wouldn’t fit the longstanding stereotype. Although times are now changing. Pro-Europe Peter Mandelson recently calling for Britain to “commit to a future referendum as the best way of re-establishing a national consensus about future relations with Europe” is one such example of how the debate is moving on beyond the traditional eurosceptic right.
When the People’s Pledge was formed a year ago, it drew upon many lessons of the successful No to AV campaign. That campaign showed that uniting left and right and elevating the debate above party politics was the only way the ‘movement’ could move outside the box. The centre of gravity of the People’s Pledge is still clearly eurosceptic but it is moving into balance quite rapidly. That alone is a marked change.
Some 66 MPs so far support the People’s Pledge with many more likely to sign in the coming months. Among the public, more than 10,000 supporters are signing up on a monthly basis. Our latest supporters include the newly elected Mayor of London Boris Johnson, prominent Labour MPs Jon Cruddas, Natascha Engel (chair of the influential backbench business committee) and George Howarth.
Previous campaigns for a referendum have encouraged lazy debate – they allowed those who are against a referendum to play the man rather than the ball. They used to be viewed as exclusively right wing, eurosceptic, little Englander, Conservative – every stereotype traditionally used to fit anyone who ‘banged on’ about a referendum. But the movement has moved on. It is now pro-referendum, pro-democracy and crucially, cross-party.
Back in February we announced “the most ambitious grassroots campaign for a referendum in British history” – not my words but those of commentators from The Guardian, The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. At a press conference chaired by our director Ian McKenzie – a former special adviser to two Labour cabinet ministers – we announced an 18-month programme of local referendums starting with one in April – 10 later this year and 100 next year.
The question we put to people was simple: “The people of the United Kingdom should be given a referendum on our membership of the European Union: AGREE or DISAGREE.” Last October a majority of MPs – including the Thurrock Conservative MP Jackie Doyle-Price – had voted against a motion that would have allowed a referendum on our EU membership, on a three-line whip. The most common reason given by those voting against was “my constituents do not care about having a referendum”. We need to ensure that when faced with such a vote again in the Commons – and there will likely be one before the next general election – then MPs have no room to manoeuvre. And so the constituents of Doyle-Price – who holds a wafer-thin 92 majority over Labour – were the first to be polled on 5 April.
Over the eight-week campaign, members of the People’s Pledge team and our local activists knocked on 46,000 doors. All our hard work paid off. The result was staggering. Nearly 15,000 people in Thurrock voted, on a turnout of over 30 per cent, with nearly 90 per cent voting ‘AGREE’. This result crucially exceeded the expectations of many political analysts who felt the turnout on a poll held on the Thursday before Easter would be in the high single figures at best. Not only did the turnout exceed that of many local government elections in the area, but the number voting AGREE for a referendum was only 3,000 shy of the total number of votes incumbent MP Doyle-Price received at the last general election.
The numbers speak for themselves. As a result Doyle-Price will find it very hard to vote against such a referendum motion again. The overwhelming results and a full postbag will make the claim “my constituents do not care about our EU membership” seem ludicrous.
The Westminster elite has been able to escape addressing the referendum question for many years by convincing itself that opinions polls weren’t really comprehensive or representative, and certainly not relevant to their own constituents. It was an easy position to take. Which MP really cares if 80 per cent of an 800 person-strong focus group sampled for a poll want a referendum? This is where the People’s Pledge vote in Thurrock, along with the others we have planned in the future, presents a significant and less dismissable challenge.
You have to take the argument to the people, and as we saw in Thurrock, they might just agree with what you think. The first referendum was a success and the next few, to be announced this month, will take an EU referendum directly to more voters and MPs than ever before.
Through all of this, what must be remembered is that the aim of the People’s Pledge and our ground strategy is not to threaten MPs. Far from it: it is to give them a chance to inform, energise and motivate their constituents on an issue of critical importance, so that when an EU referendum vote happens again – and it will – they can defy their whips knowing they have the all-important support of their constituents. The People’s Pledge will hold a further 10 referendums this year and 100 in 2013. By then the landscape will look very different for all concerned.
Christopher Bruni-Lowe is co-founder and campaign director of the People’s Pledge