Conference Countdown 2015: How to learn lessons and not blow the EU referendum

In the run-up to Autumn Conference in Bournemouth, we’ll be looking ahead to examine the highlights in the debating hall, the fringe and training rooms. You can find the papers here. You can find all the posts in the series here.

Willie Rennie has finally written a frank and fascinating assessment of the flaws in the Better Together campaign. He draws a number of important conclusions which need to be learned if the EU referendum is not going to fall foul of the pitfalls that beset not only Better Together but in starker and disastrous form the incompetent Yes To AV campaign in 2011. All the articles are well worth a read.

One conclusion about Better Together that others have drawn but not Willie is that lumping in the Lib Dem referendum effort solely with Better Together meant eclipsing the work of the Campbell Commission on Home Rule which answered the calls for further devolution in a way Better Together completely failed to address. From hearing some of the many conversations in Scotland last year it was evident this was a hindrance, and it was only in the final stages of that campaign that high-profile interventions from the likes of the late Charles Kennedy had an impact.

So when Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth next week debate Europe and the EU Referendum, what are we to do?

The party is preparing for this, and so I have authored a modest amendment designed to give us the flexibility denied us in the two most recent referendums. It simply calls for ‘a dual approach in which Liberal Democrats work with and in parallel to’ the main referendum campaign: not to duplicate it, but to be able to motivate our members old and new, and give those at the top of the party the support to speak out were the main ‘In’ campaign to fall into the cul-de-sacs inhabited by Better Together and Yes To AV.

Our effort whenever the referendum comes should still be collegiate, pluralist and collaborative; but this different approach would show that we have learnt lessons from previous campaigns, and are prepared to lead when it matters and when it counts.

* Gareth Epps is a member of FPC and FCC, a member of the Fair Deal for your Local campaign coalition committee and is an active member of Britain’s largest consumer campaign, CAMRA. He claims to be marginally better at Aunt Sally than David Cameron, whom he stood against in Witney in 2001.

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  • The Lib Dems need to learn from the past. Under no circumstances should Nick Clegg be allowed near the campaign as any input will hinder the goal.

  • John Marriott
    Well, either I looked at things a bit deeper than your average, or I made significant mistakes, but I was well aware that the choice in the 1975 referendum was between a political union with the EEC or a purely economic partnership by reverting to EFTA. When I voted Yes, I understood and supported that. I know that many elements in the Whitehall establishment had always from the very start opposed the idea that we might say anything political to the British people, and I am sure that was in evidence then. The Nick Clegg approach that you rightly pour scorn on, no doubt had much advice from that source! So when you wrote your final sentence, that sounds straight out of the David Cameron “renegotiation” playbook, accepting UKIP / Tory Europhobe arguments. If you have a somewhat different argument / analysis, please could you make it a bit more clearly?

  • Nonconformistradical 13th Sep '15 - 9:40pm

    @John Marriott

    ” Weren’t we already members of EFTA, by the way?”

    You mean that rump organisation with 4 remaining members – Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Leichtenstein?

  • Judging by Umunna,s statement about his discussion with Corbyn, we cant be certain that Labour will be campaigning for The UK to stay in. If we see the Labour Leader campaigning for Brexit alongside UKIP, a chunk of The Tories & most of the Papers this could be an even tougher fight than we expected.

  • Simon Horner 13th Sep '15 - 10:29pm

    One of the myths peddled by anti-EU campaigners is that the British people only signed up to a “common market” not any kind of political union. In fact, the very first line of the EEC Treaty was as follows:
    “Determined to lay the foundations of an ever-closer union among the people’s of Europe.”
    I remember during the 1975 referendum campaign that the “No” side hammered away on this point. So people were well aware of what they were voting for. It was Mrs Thatcher who started rewriting the story when she turned against European integration and this falsehood of Britain having somehow been deceived is now, sadly, accepted wisdom in this country. If David Cameron negotiates a British opt out from “ever closer union” he should have the grace to admit that we have changed our minds. I can’t see that happening though. Ah perfidious Albion!

  • tony dawson 14th Sep '15 - 8:24am

    Whoever is allowing that rag bag of egoists to form the ‘IN’ campaign to take control of the direction (and the state money!) of this campaign? Their combined output to date appears to be more intellectually self-stimulatory than doing anything to capture the imagination of Britain.

    ‘AV Yes’ revisited, anyone? 🙁

  • Reason will play little part in the referendum…Much of the ‘popular’ media is anti and there will be much about ‘faceless bureaucrats’, ‘straight bananas’, ‘terrorist apologists’ and little on facts…
    Sadly an electorate who thought ‘details’ of a bacon sandwich was more important than details of £13 billion in welfare cuts may well buy into the scare tactics…

  • As someone who was not born in 1975 I can tell you that I absolutely do not care what people did or didn’t know in the last referendum. If this is the kind of debate we’re going to have during the campaign then we’ve already lost. We need to having a debate about now, not then.

  • @Tim13 & John Marriott

    You may be interested in this:

    With regard to the comment from John and many others about people only voting for a Common Market, there are 2 items that may explain why:

    1. Page 5
    The aims of the Common Market are:

    To bring together the peoples of Europe.
    To raise living standards and improve working conditions.
    To promote growth and boost world trade.
    To help the poorest regions of Europe and the rest of the world.
    To help maintain peace and freedom.

    2 Pages 8/9
    There was a threat to employment in Britain from the movement in the Common Market towards an Economic & Monetary Union. This could have forced us to accept fixed exchange rates for the pound, restricting industrial growth and putting jobs at risk. This threat has been removed.

    I wasn’t old enough to vote on this in 1975, so I’ve never really bothered reading up much on the campaign literature. However, having just done a quick scan of this document, I can’t see much about political union.

  • @Gareth Epps
    “I am puzzled at references to 1975…”

    Perhaps that is a lesson in itself, the need to be truthful if you don’t want to spend another 35 years going over the same points again? Plus of course the speed of mass communication now means that any anomalies are going to highlighted very quickly.

  • john Stevens 14th Sep '15 - 3:04pm

    GE makes a very valid point imv on the need for a semi-detached approach by LDs to the referendum and the parallel with BT in Scotland.

  • Richard Sangster 14th Sep '15 - 3:53pm

    I think William Rennie hits the nail on the head in saying that the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Conservatives have different visions for the Union. In the case of the EU Referendum, this problem does not arise. The Conservatives are obviously split on the issue. Labour have already announced that they will have their own pro-EU campaign, but are also likely to split on the issue.

    In areas like Berkshire, where the European Movement doesn’t have a branch, it is likely that the Liberal Democrats will need to take a leading role in the pro-EU Campaign.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Sep '15 - 5:34pm

    Nonconformistradical 13th Sep ’15 – 9:40pm The UK left EFTA when it joined the EEC (now called EU) so did Denmark.
    An important part of the UK’s trade is with the Republic of Ireland, which joined at the same time as us.
    EFTA is starting to negotiate with Georgia, famous for its wines, until Gorbachev cracked down on drunkeness at work, mainly caused by vodka.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Sep '15 - 5:40pm

    Richard Sangster 14th Sep ’15 – 3:53pm Labour’s Yes to EU campaign depends on the outcome of the UK government’s negotiations. IF DC tries to negotiate away things that some employers dislike he would undermine his own campaign. Lots of jobs depend on the outcome. If the UK become semi-detached from the continent the gravity of the deals would be with them.

  • The ‘remain’ campaign may have received a boost, as more countries show that they can act unilaterally e.g. the Schengen Agreement, while remaining within the European Union.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Sep '15 - 9:35pm

    Apparently the departures from Schengen are allowed if temporary, but will they be?

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