Nick Pickles is Director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, and was the Conservative Parliamentaruy candidate for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford in 2010. Follow Nick on Twitter.
“What do we want?”
“A pre-renegotiation mandate referendum to give the Government the public’s support for a different relationship with the EU.”
“When do we want it?”
“At an appropriate time decided by Parliament, the Electoral Reform Society and Nick Clegg, but really quite soon, please.”
Actually, I am mistaken. It was a bloke shouting something at a pigeon. In literally no street – anywhere – is that the cry.
The one clear lesson from UKIP’s surge in the local elections is that more than ever before, the public are increasingly unwilling to listen to politicians. The ‘you’re all the same’ tag is nothing new, but Coalition, like Blairism before it, has certainly added fuel to the fire. In the north and urban areas, where conservatism faces particularly tough challenges, this scepticism is even more acute.
The public voted for candidates that had never knocked on their door, never delivered a leaflet. Long-standing councillors were replaced by people standing in their first election, in some cases themselves believing to be paper candidates with no hope of victory.
So why is a mandate referendum the wrong approach?
Last week, the public did not care that they had not heard from their UKIP candidate, because they had heard enough from everyone else. Words are cheap, yet action so often falls below what was promised. A plague on all your duck houses.
Firstly, to have an argument about an issue, you need two sides. And in the event of a mandate referendum, absolutely nobody will take up the ‘no’ campaign, unless the Monster Raving Looney Party fancies some taxpayer-funded advertising. I agree with John Redwood MP – the overwhelming majority of people would vote ‘Yes’. Put another way, it would be the most expensive opinion poll to state the bleeding obvious ever.
Forget talk of a Government driven by focus groups, now the public would think we’re incapable of making big calls, somehow afraid of leadership. If 80% of the public agree, they’re hardly going to punish the Government for doing what they support.
The public don’t want a say on the process, they want a say on the outcome. Ask people if they want a vote, and many will say yes – on our continued membership of the EU. (I suspect many of those calling for a mandate referendum also fall into this group.)
The scene is not hard to imagine. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband all agree the public should vote Yes. Nigel Farage, laughs, takes a swig of his pint and merrily decries the Westminster establishment stitch-up that is plain to all to see.
“Ah, yes, they want you to have a vote, but not on the question you want to be asked.” It would be political martyrdom for UKIP and undermine the Prime Minister’s position as the only political leader promising an in-out vote.
Indeed, Mrs Thatcher had some choice words of advice for such a situation. “Consensus: the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus?”
Want to win back voters concerned about immigration? Do absolutely everything you can to put Abu Qatada on a plane, stop health tourism in the NHS and enforce the minimum wage relentlessly, so foreign workers cannot be used as a cheap substitute for British workers. Change the law to deport foreign criminals abusing the provisions for family life, focus the immigration system on ensuring skilled workers are welcome and remove any incentive whatsoever in the benefits system for people to settle here.
In other words, do exactly what this Government is doing. Delivery is always tough, especially from a position of financial ruin, but addressing these challenges should be the focus of everyone in the Conservative Party. The Government still urgently needs a manifesto for the renegotiation it will pursue, and producing this will do far more to address concerns than an empty political gesture that will cost millions, and will do nothing to change people’s everyday experience of immigration, EU largesse and public services buckling under the strain.
Government is about leadership, not posturing. Under-promise, over-deliver is the only way to repair trust in politics and win back voters sceptical of the political class at large. Headlines about leaving the European Convention of Human Rights may win the day’s news cycle, but without action they betray the lack of strategic direction that the public has grown weary of. However strong the speech or positive the headlines, the public know that they don’t change anything on their own.
A mandate referendum is straight out of the book of popular political ideas never discussed by the public that make no difference to how they vote, along with other must-have manifesto pledges like abolishing the penny and free cake at polling stations.
The public will rightly see through such a nakedly political gesture, and reward the people that call it out as the sham it is. Mr Farage would laugh all the way to the bar.