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Dear Nick: Demand a Referendum

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An open letter to Nick Clegg: Peter Kellner advises the Deputy PM to hold a referendum on Britain's EU membership, as his YouGov poll ratings 'tank'

Dear Nick,

You have had a torrid fortnight. You hated David Cameron telling you he had vetoed a new European Union treaty. You endured mockery from your stance. You felt you had to stay away from the House of Commons when the Prime Minister reported back on the latest EU summit. And now your poll ratings have tanked. In just one week, according to the latest YouGov poll for the Sunday Times, the number of people saying you are doing well has slumped from 25% to 18%, while the proportion saying you are doing badly has jumped from 65% to 73%. Your net score (well minus badly) has fallen from a terrible minus 40 to a catastrophic minus 55.

The last time your rating was so low was in the weeks after the AV referendum. And before that, the positive score you enjoyed in the first weeks of the coalition disappeared when you abandoned your election pledge to fight student tuition fees. It seems that each time events conspire to put you centre stage, you alienate millions of voters.

So what can you do? You can’t threaten to break the Coalition and force an early election; or, rather, you can but shouldn’t, for you know the Liberal Democrats would be crucified. Better to carry on until the next election, due in 2015, enjoy the benefits of staying in office and use your limited bargaining chips to win occasional victories for your progressive ideals.

Nor does continuing this year’s strategy look promising. In your early months as deputy prime minister you declined to criticise anything Cameron did. You wanted voters to understand that the Coalition was a rock-solid marriage that would last the full five years. This year, in response to bad poll ratings and mutterings in your ranks, you have been more open about your differences with the Conservatives, notably on taxation, welfare, voting reform and Britain’s place in Europe. Much good has it done you. You will probably, and rightly, continue in the same vein, not least because it is more honest than nodding in agreement every time the Prime Minister says or does something you hate. But don’t expect electoral dividends.

What, then, can you do? Here’s an idea. Revive the proposal discussed by some Lib Dems in the last parliament and fight for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

One reason flows from another finding in YouGov’s latest Sunday Times survey. We repeated a question we have asked a number of times before: in a referendum, would people vote for Britain to leave the EU or remain a member? As I noted last week, the previous big majority for leaving had declined to a narrow lead for pulling out. Now the lead has disappeared altogether: 41% say they would vote to stay in, while another 41% would vote to lead.

Now, a word of caution. This time we preceded our referendum question with a series of other questions about the EU. These included taking eight policy areas and asking whether powers in each of these areas should be held by the British Government, the EU, or shared between the two. In three policy areas, more than 40% wanted the EU to play some role: the environment and climate change (61%), trade rules (46%) and foreign policy towards countries outside Europe (45%).

It’s possible that an order effect kicked in. That is, some people, having answered these questions, were more disposed to vote for Britain remaining in the EU than leaving. Had we asked the referendum question ‘cold’, we might have found a majority for leaving.

Either way, our figures confirm the pattern of history: that the more people think about the EU, the less inclined most are to vote for withdrawal.

Bearing that in mind, let’s consider how the politics of an in-out referendum would play out. We know that most people think there should be one. So, at a stroke, you would put yourself on the right side of public opinion. Your support would make it hard for Cameron to resist the idea, for he would face pressure not just from you but from a sizeable proportion of his own backbenchers. He could well conclude that his best course would be to hold a referendum, campaign for the UK to stay in the EU, but allow Conservative ministers and backbenchers the freedom to take either side. (This is what Harold Wilson did in 1975 when his Labour government held the last referendum on Britain and Europe.)

If that happens, then the leaders of all three main parties, together with Alex Salmond in Scotland, would campaign against withdrawal. As in 1975, I would expect the tide of public opinion to shift decisively towards a ‘yes to Europe’ majority. You would be on the winning side. Just as you support for a referendum catch the public mood, so would your support for the UK remaining a member. And the issue of British membership would be dead for another generation.

Let me be clear. I’m personally a fan of representative rather than direct democracy. I am against referendums as a way of making big national decisions. I wish they had never crossed the Channel. But they have done so and, like the grey squirrels that were another unwelcome twentieth century import, are probably impossible to eradicate. So you might as well use them to good effect. If you made this one of your causes for 2012, you might find that voters warm to you more than they have done in 2011.

Best wishes,

Peter