By Matthew Barrett
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Earlier today, on Comment, Daniel Hannan MEP wrote:
"Today, the People’s Pledge announces the most ambitious campaign ever to secure an In/Out referendum. It aims to show MPs in all parties that there is a premium in doing the right thing: that supporting a referendum carries an electoral reward. It is backed by supporters of every party and none, and by prospective ‘Yes’ as well as ‘No’ voters. I am confident that it will succeed: the momentum is now wholly one way."
In a LabourList post this morning, Director of Communications for the People’s Pledge, Ian McKenzie, gave details of the "most ambitious campaign ever" for a referendum. McKenzie explained that the People's Pledge would hold an in/out referendum in a single constituency early this year, followed by ten later this year, and 100 next year.
The referendums will be independently administered by Electoral Reform Services Ltd and conducted by full postal ballot. The People's Pledge will next week chose the first referendum seat from one of the following shortlisted constituencies:
- Belfast East (Alliance) (Naomi Long)
- Bolton West (Labour) (Julie Hilling)
- Carshalton and Wallington (Liberal Democrat) (Tom Brake)
- Corby (Conservative) (Louise Mensch)
- Easington (Labour) (Grahame Morris)
- Eastleigh (Liberal Democrat) (Chris Huhne)
- Gower (Labour) (Martin Caton)
- Halifax (Labour) (Linda Riordan)
- Ipswich (Conservative) (Ben Gummer)
- Newcastle-under-Lyme (Labour) (Paul Farrelly)
- Thurrock (Conservative) (Jackie Doyle-Price)
- Torridge and West Devon (Conservative) (Geoffrey Cox)
- Western Isles (SNP) (Angus MacNeil)
The constituencies are spread around the country and spread amongst the parliamentary parties – and the sitting Members for the seats are united in not having signed the People's Pledge for a referendum. The People's Pledge has also avoided frontbenchers – apart from Chris Huhne. The first referendum, which will close at 5pm on Thursday 5th April, will present constituents in the chosen seat with an opportunity to persuade their Member of Parliament to sign up for a referendum.
As the constituency referendums take place later this year and next year, it is hoped that MPs who were unable to support the 81 Conservative and 19 Labour Members who voted for a referendum at the end of last year, will feel compelled to agree to the need for a referendum by the strength of grassroots support in their constituencies. The People's Pledge are aiming to create a proper, by-election style campaign, with local headquarters, door-to-door canvassing, leafleting, street stalls, public meetings, etc – and, crucially, a turnout of over 10,000 per seat, which should indicate the strength of grassroots feeling.
Under present boundaries, each seat represents about 70,000 constituents, and therefore to get 10,000 voters (or more) in each seat would be a very ambitious task. To add to the enormity of the project, it should be remembered that there is no precedent for a grassroots campaign holding seat-by-seat referendums. Perhaps the only comparison to make is that of the privately-funded campaign organised in Scotland in 2000 by Sir Brian Souter, to resist the repeal of Section 28. That campaign sent 3,970,712 postal ballots to voters, and achieved a turnout of about 32%.
It should also be remembered that both the Government and Opposition front benches are opposed to the substance of the campaign – holding a referendum on the EU – and therefore MPs who do sign up to the Pledge are effectively defying the whips. This won't deter backbenchers who regularly vote against their leadership on European issues, but it will be a important factor in the decision made by backbenchers not known for rebelling on European issues.
Although, given the challenges set out above, I suspect it is unlikely that the People's Pledge will be able to convert a high proportion of MPs to the cause of an in/out referendum, greater transparency amongst MPs, more public support for a new relationship with Europe, and greater public participation in politics would be a step in the right direction. It would be especially pleasing for Europhile MPs in safe seats to be reminded that many of their constituents do care about Europe, and would like a say, even if it isn't Party policy.