Yesterday, I asked my parents how they would vote in the EU referendum. Bearing in mind they were one foot out the door to go camping in France, I was somewhat taken aback by their ambivalence towards our membership. If they are in any way representative of the general ignorance about Brussels, Europhiles have a much bigger hill to climb than many would like to think.
Europe, or rather the referendum, was always an interesting point of contention during my recent election campaign hustings, not least of all that it was one of the few items of clear difference in my competitor's views, summarised by me as follows:
- Conservative: Wants referendum asap but (mostly?) opposed to leaving
- Lib Dem: Doesn't want a referendum until the reforms are known, firmly pro-EU
- Labour: "We strongly believe Britain's future lies at the heart of a reformed EU"
- UKIP: Leave now, pull up the drawbridge and ignore the consequences
- Left Unity: Stay in, and build pan-European "red & green" movement
- Independent: Stay in, no referendum necessary, what a crazy question.
The Green Party is very clear about its position, referred to as the "three yesses":
- Yes, we support reform of the EU
- Yes, we support a referendum if the voting public of UK would like one
- Yes, we strongly support our membership of the EU.
However, the question being asked was "should there be a referendum and if so how would you vote"? We almost never followed up with the obvious supplementary - why?
The Green Party's stance can be misunderstood in that it appears to concentrate power in the hands of the supposed bureaucrats. In fact, we believe in decision making at the lowest level, with appropriate levels of authority from the bottom up. In the UK, the most pressing issue is the extraordinary power wielded by our national government, not that of the EU. It has always struck me as entirely hypocritical that the Tories claim European malfeasance, yet after decades of concentration of powers in Westminster domestic devolution proceeds at a snail's pace.
But what was driving my parent's hesitation? In keeping with a huge number of the conversations I experienced on the doorstep there was little of substance, more a general reflection of the 'noise' around subsidies (bad), free trade (good) and bureaucracy (bad). They are far from alone in needing to be convinced otherwise but happily acknowledged their lack of insight into what membership really means.
The second point emerging from both this conversation and recent experience of campaigning is that those who are politically active live in a communications bubble fearful of media criticism of spin and yet out of touch with the simplistic way in which most people form their opinions. Leaflet after leaflet dropped onto the doormat in the run up to May, with a bizarre combination of scare tactic headlines, categorical representation of manipulated data and nuanced political messaging that only those deeply versed in the issues would be able to differentiate, let alone trust. To a certain extent, my own campaign played along, but we resisted as best we could whilst staying in the game.
By contrast I watched with interest the growing power of social media, especially with those supposedly uncaring younger voters. Twitter especially requires users to trim their message to the bone. It was evident that content most widely shared on social media platforms of all kinds gets to the point in extremely 'plain english' with regular swearing was added as seasoning to taste. Critics will of course point to dumbing down, but it is no different to the Sun or the Mail's crass bylines and rabid reporting. I would counter that some of the most incisive comments of the period were produced by extremely clever (and witty) commentators using their 140 characters to best effect. I await with interest the data on 2015 voter demographics, but I will eat my own marzipan hat (sic) if we don't see an increase in the number of under 30's re-engaging with democracy.
Whether we have one, two or more years to make the case for Europe, it needs to start now. It needs to be balanced, concise and be part of a bold, long term vision for a better world. I for one am absolute in my belief that a united Europe is a positive thing for our planet and for the people who live on it. The days of Britain going it alone as a globally significant player are over, not least of all that our performance on so many league tables is so poor as to undermine our credibility (including sport come to think of it), let alone our disastrous foreign policy of following the US around like a puppy dog. I earnestly hope we can have an informative and engaging debate, rather than a game of political football. It is too important a moment for those in positions of power to misjudge. If anyone is in any doubt about the potential consequences then recent events in Scotland should serve as a reminder.