I’ve been called a “Nazi” twice this summer. Well, once really. One time what they actually said was “fascist pig”, but I tend to lump all similar insults thrown at me in together. Sure, it might be a simplified way of categorising abuse, but it makes it easier to keep up.
For instance, when hand-copying down disdainful comments left under my blog posts here (for posterity purposes), regardless of whether they decry me as “spawn of New Labour” or “unfunny careerist” I file them them under the ‘LabourList comments’ section of bedroom cabinet. I’ve been planning on colour coding them into sub-sections for a while.
But, despite the best efforts of the purveyors of internet feedback to cover all possible bases in their derision of my work and personality, I haven’t actually been called a Nazi before. It’s a whole new genre of abuse for me. The whole colour coding initiative scheme has been put on hold whilst I deal with these new developments.
The reason for the far-right slurs on my good name is that I’ve spent the summer in Stockport, campaigning for an EU referendum. Apparently Hitler held some referendums in Germany in the 1930s, and so, in the eyes of a few, support for any subsequent referendum is to follow in his footsteps. I have to say, it surprised me: it had never previously occurred to me that some people’s problem with Hitler was a tireless dedication to democracy.
I didn’t let this line of argument deter me though and, convincing myself that I probably wasn’t Hitler, continued to knock on doors and tell people why I support a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.
It wasn’t something I was doing entirely randomly; you’d be easily forgiven for missing it at the height of the Olympic fever, but there was a vote on the subject held across two constituencies just south of Manchester a couple of weeks ago. The vote was organised by the People‘sPledge, the cross-party campaign for a referendum, but to ensure impartiality in the vote, balloting was handled by the ERS, who sort out internal votes for the Labour Party and several major trade unions.
Now, I think the UK should be a part of the EU. If there were to be a referendum, I would vote for us to stay in. No question.
The idea of supporting a referendum simply to reaffirm this country’s commitment to a political union it’s already a part of may seem absurd, even perverse, especially given the polling that suggests people would vote to leave, but I think it’s perfectly sensible.
For me, the argument comes down to three main points: it’s the right thing to do; it’s popular; we’d win.
Firstly, it’s the right thing to do. The last time we had a referendum on a matter like this was 1975, on the UK’s participation in the European Common Market. It means that no one under the age of 55 has had any sort of vote on what the UK’s role should be within the EU, which wouldn’t be so much of a problem for me if it hadn’t changed so dramatically over the past 37 years. An evolution has taken place from an economic to a political union, that much of our legislation now comes from there. I’m not bothered by this in principle, and I certainly don’t share Nigel Farage’s view that so many of our laws are made in Brussels that Westminster elections are now irrelevant. However, as much as we live in a parliamentary democracy, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of legislative power being moved away from MPs, by MPs. That’s not their job, that’s ours.
Troublesome too, is the level of apparent unaccountability that exists within the EU. People like Cathy Ashton, who, as far as I can see, has never been elected to any position ever, seem to hold a disproportionate amount of influence for a role with no public mandate. From a purely idealistic perspective, I’d like to see British politicians look to tackle this. To do it properly though, they’d need to show commitment to an accountable EU. For me, there’d be no better way of doing this than holding a referendum here. Cut the democratic deficit, not the NHS?
Something I came across on the doorstep during this campaign, which was also prevalent when doorknocking for Labour in the north west at the 2009 European elections, was people saying they don’t know what the EU is. They don’t know what it does. Why it matters.
Honestly, I often can’t give a satisfactory answer. The EU seems a great, sprawling concept, difficult to engage with. Like a Gorgon, no sooner do I feel like I’ve dealt with one of its heads that I remember it has many, many more. And that first one’s grown back.
Personally, I can’t think of a better way to engage people who feel disenfranchised from a system that seems distant and bureaucratic than by giving them a vote on it. A large part of people’s distrust of the EU stems from the fact that they don’t know much about it. If politicians gave these people a say in it, they’d be forced to set out their ideas of what it is and how it should work. Maybe we could finally dispel some of these myths.
Secondly, it’s popular. This is an inarguable fact. Common sense would tell you that there is a reason elections aren’t usually held in August, let alone when the Olympic Games are being held in that country. People will be on holiday, and if they’re not, they’ll have better things to do. But in the run-up to the deadline of August 9th, when the people of Cheadle and Hazel Grove were given the chance to vote on whether there should be a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, there was 35% turnout. In percentage terms, that’s higher than turnout for the council elections held there in May. It’s higher than the 2009 Europeans elections, and it’ll be higher than the 2013 ones too. In Cheadle, 86.8% of people voted in favour of a referendum, in Hazel Grove it was 85.59%. These results are pretty unequivocal, and aren’t one-offs. A similar vote in Thurrock earlier this year found 89.9% in favour, and a cursory glance at any opinion poll on the subject will show you that it’s what people want.
So, should Labour adopt the a policy of supporting a referendum, and by having People’s Pledge signee Jon Cruddas as policy chief it could well happen, it would be a popular move. Not simply amongst your usual suspects either: Cheadle and Hazel Grove are hardly constituencies full of “Little Englanders”, and the vote in favour far outstripped UKIP’s support at the last election in both seats.
Should Labour take the step and say it would hold a referendum at some point during the next election, it would send the Tories into chaos. As this summer has proved, Cameron’s ability to faff about on this issue is really something to behold, and would do wonders for Miliband’s personal polling. The same hundred Tory backbenchers who signed the letter demanding a referendum only a month or two ago would howl with outrage that we’d taken the lead on the issue, and Miliband would look bold and even (whisper it) prime ministerial compared to the flailing “practical Euroscepticism” of an under-pressure Cameron.
Finally, we’d win. Really, the least of the arguments, but it’s true. Out of all the newspapers, only the Express would explicitly support an “out” vote. The Times, the Sun and, yes, even the Mail would support a renegotiation of our position. You would probably have the leaders of all three main political parties (presuming UKIP don’t do better than the Lib Dems in 2015) supporting us staying in. You would have lots of doom-mongering business types on the news every night worried about the effect leaving would have on trade. And if you look back to Cameron’s EU “veto” last Christmas, opinion polls on whether to leave were tied at 41%, showing that if people think we have a say in what’s going on in Europe, they’re actually pretty open to the idea. I’m not alone in thinking this, Peter Kellner has a slightly better record of analysing poll data than me, and he seems to agree.
And I missed the Olympics for that.