By Tim Montgomerie
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Overnight we got the result of the referendum held in the parliamentary constituency of Thurrock on whether local people wanted a vote on Britain's membership of the EU*. Nearly 48,000 ballot papers were issued to local residents in a referendum initiated by the People's Pledge campaign but overseen by Electoral Reform Services Limited to ensure fair play.
The People's Pledge (recently signed by Boris Johnson) are justifiably claiming that both the level of turnout and the result give new momentum to their campaign:
- 14,590 ballot papers were returned (by post, text or email). That's a total turnout of 30.39%.
- The percentage who said they wanted a vote was a whopping 89.9%. Those against 10.1% (1,479).
In a press statement Ian McKenzie of the Pledge drew two conclusions:
"First, electors will respond to political activity that engages them. The myth of the disinterested citizen is just that, a myth. Knock on enough doors, respectfully explain why you are there, and, if your message is strong enough, people will respond. Second, the political parties at Westminster are going to have to rethink their attitude to a national referendum on the EU. “Heads in sand” is no longer a viable strategy; the people of Thurrock have just taken it off the table."
The People's Pledge chose Thurrock because it is held by Conservative Jackie Doyle-Price by just 92 votes. It hopes to run a very ambitious 100 more referenda in similar seats before the next election. The Pledge campaign believes that MPs in close contests will lose their seats if they don't back a referendum and face major or small party candidates that do make such a commitment.
The Tories have an uphill struggle to win the next election and cannot afford many Tory voters to defect over this issue. UKIP is regularly getting 6% to 8% in the YouGov daily tracking poll (7% in the overnight Sun survey). Hoping that that percentage will decline is not a strategy but a dangerous gamble. It is just as possible that UKIP's support will harden. One year before the next General Election there'll be European Parliamentary Elections and UKIP have done very well in the last two of these elections. We don't want people to get into the habit of backing a party that lets pro-EU parties into power by the back door. Cameron's best hope of killing the UKIP threat is to give the British people the say on EU membership that anyone aged under 55 has never had. I know at least 81 Tory MPs who agree.
* The exact question was: "Voters should be given a national referendum on whether the UK remains a member of the European Union. Agree or disagree?"