‘The devil gets all the best tunes’ – South West sentiment to the EU

We all know Britain’s relationship with Europe is a fault-line for the Conservative party.  Equally, we know that Labour has its own divisions. In both parties, the split is between pro-Europeans and anti-Europeans, between staying in Europe or getting out of Europe.

Affirmation of the Liberal Democrats’ pro-European position comes from the findings of a survey I conducted among 457 Liberal Democrat councillors in the South West region at the beginning of September, which delivers an unambiguous message of support for the Party’s Europe policy*.

However, one revealing division in opinion is apparent, namely the wisdom of holding a referendum. Responding to the question ‘Should Liberal Democrats call for a referendum as soon as is ‘feasible’ on EU membership?’, 44% of respondents said yes.  Given that none of the respondents expressed opposition to the EU, the result to the question on a referendum suggests that almost half the Party would welcome the opportunity to have a nationwide vote and that it would be a compelling option in which to present the positive argument for our ongoing membership of the EU.  Intriguingly it also indicates that councillors have not lost the appetite for fighting a ‘yes’ campaign despite the ‘no’ result of the AV referendum last year.

The survey also reveals that only 8% expressed opposition to the Party’s Europe policy, which should hearten the leadership as it begins preparing its strategy for the next European elections in 2014.  Equally, all respondents acknowledged that the South West region benefits from membership of the European Union.  So the Party’s pro European policy and support among activists and campaigners appears to be in no doubt, even at a time of sustained anti-European assault by the Conservatives, UKIP and the majority of the print media.

With anti-European sentiment reasonably strong in the South West, and with two of its six MEPs representing UKIP, the results of the survey are an important indicator of the Party’s preparedness in the region to fight a pro-European vote.  That appetite for a referendum appears to be driven, in part, by a belief that there is a need to inform and educate the electorate about Europe, and that once armed with the facts the population at large will support a ‘yes’ campaign.  In response to the question ‘does your electorate consider the UK’s membership of the EU important for our economy and jobs?’ 72% replied ‘no’.

There is clearly a significant willingness to make the case for EU membership, and a view that an early referendum would help achieve that and help halt the toxic drip, drip, drip of the euro-sceptic right and media.   As one respondent remarked about how euro-sceptics have set the pace in the debate, ‘the devil gets all the best tunes’.

*457 County, Unitary, District and Borough councillors approached across the South West.  There was a 5.5% return rate.

* Andrew Wigley is a public affairs professional who has lived and worked in the US and the Middle East. He began his career working for the Liberal Democrats, first in London and then Brussels. He previously managed community and public affairs for an oil company with facilities near In Amenas.

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  • Whilst I fully agree that there is a need to “inform and educate” and to put forward the positive pro European case and also feel that it has reached the point that a referendum is becoming inevitable, I think that this article is based on only 25 responses, so I would hesitate about drawing conclusions.

    I do think however that Lib Dems need to put forward strongly the case for an IN/OUT referendum: a referendum over a lengthily negotiated treaty would be dreadful and if rejected more damaging to the EU than a UK exit. The whole point of negotiations is that compromises are hammered out; going back to the beginning again would be very corrosive. In the end negotiators would have to factor in a likely first time rejection into the initial treaty and hold back a possible compromise for the post rejection changes.

    The Lib Dems cannot continue to be the sole major party responsible for putting forward the positive case for the EU, This has been the case for many years now. Others need to be called to account. There is an obvious risk in an IN/OUT referendum, but which ever way it goes, outcome will be better for Europe as a whole.

  • Leekliberal 9th Oct '12 - 7:35pm

    Martin, I agree with your analysis but the only thing you havn’t mentioned is the electorlal damage being done to the Tories nationally by UKIP which will continue until the the in or out referendum takes place.

  • so then if the lack of a referendum is damaging the Tories, lets not have one!
    ‘once armed with the facts the population will support a ‘yes”.. so they might, but there is the flaw.. we thought that in the AV referendum but the public were never given the full facts, such that was given were drowned out by the wall of lies and mis-information, by the ‘no’ campaign, hotly supported and endorsed by the media.
    There is no basis for believing that any national referendum in the UK could be fair and balanced, and as we elect Westminster to make our decisions(albeit badly and with all the flaws of FPTP), probably best to leave the question in their hands, and to ensure that the EU question is asked at every General Election hustings.

  • “Before we consider another referendum, we need to amend PPERA to ensure that No2AV’s lies and smears aren’t repeated in any other campaign that the rich wish to distort.”

    I think anyone advocating that course needs to think very carefully about whether they want the courts to get involved in deciding the validity of political arguments. And of course, the arguments on both sides during that referendum campaign were open to criticism.

  • Typical LD responses to the Europe debate :

    “We need to put forward the pro European case”
    “The debate is too poisoned for a rational debate”
    “Once armed with the facts the population will support a ‘yes”
    “There is clearly a significant willingness to make the case for EU membership”

    OK someone, anyone, make the case for EU membership ; draft a bullet point list that will fit onto an A4 that can be shoved through a letterbox, One that removes the poison, is armed with facts and puts the pro European case.

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