Croquet, Union Jacks, Liberal Democrats and the European referendum

London Liberal Democrats Quiz Night at National Liberal Club

Two days in a row I spent several hours with fellow London Liberal Democrat members in a packed room. Friday night was the quiz night at the National Liberal Club, complete with bonus extra snippets of information from Simon Hughes culled from the Guinness Book of Records. It used to feature his croquet playing achievements.

Not only a packed room but also one with only a relatively small smattering of the usual suspects to be found buying raffle tickets at Lib Dem events. The number of new and newer faces was impressive.

Then Saturday afternoon was a briefing and planning session, focusing on the likely European referendum.

The challenge with the pro-European message was illustrated in former MEP Graham Watson’s list of achievements from European cooperation, including the fact the British astronaut Tim Peake is in space thanks to the European space programme . It is by cooperating closely with our European neighbours that we bring out the best in our country.

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The challenge is to make that a positive rather than defeatist message, yet a positive one which still has at its heart an understanding that the most effective positive messages in referendums are those which are wrapped around the dangers lurking in the alternatives.

Those successful referendums for devolution in Scotland and Wales which set up their own legislative bodies were based on a positive message for the future and fear of what a future purely run from London would be. Even the much maligned anti-independence referendum campaign in Scotland, which messed up the positive vision so badly, still ended up winning because people were not willing to gamble on the risky alternative. (If you balk at my use of ‘risky’, break out a graph of oil price fluctuations.)

“Even the lifts in Brussels now speak English,”  said Graham Watson, adding a whimsical aside to a serious point about how much power Britain has in the EU.

To preserve that power – and the benefits – the European referendum will need to be won. Which is where Iain Gill came in.

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Appointed to coordinate the Liberal Democrat referendum campaign, Iain talked to the hall in front of both a Union Jack and an EU flag, an appropriate backdrop to his points about how being pro-European and patriotic fit together and complement each other.

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For the Liberal Democrats, however, the key contribution to be made to the referendum campaign will be more to help mobilise those who are less likely to be found with a Union Jack flag pole in their garden. (Chris Huhne’s garden in Eastleigh excepted. He had a lovely flag pole.) Rather, it is the more liberally minded, internationally focused voters who the party can best appeal to – and who the party should concentrate on too for a second reason, namely that it is this group where a future larger core vote for the Liberal Democrats is to be found.

To achieve that, the European referendum campaign needs to be integrated with the party’s other activities, and it was a promising sign to see how joined up the event was, with London Mayor candidate Caroline Pidgeon following Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder in just one sign of the joined up approach, and with each person’s comments echoing and amplifying each other. Iain Gill may have first mentioned the Union Jack, but it was Catherine Bearder who said, “That flag does not belong to Nigel Farage … Wear it with pride”.

In London that integration will be best delivered by one set of campaigning which is for both the European referendum and London Mayor/Assembly election campaigns, especially as polling day in each may be only a few weeks apart.

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Not a street stall for one or a leaflet which is for the other but campaigning which is for both, that addresses the concerns at the top of our (possible) voters’ minds and which gathers that key data – such as email addresses – which former regional chair Mike Tuffrey rightly highlighted in his contribution.

Get that right, and the Liberal Democrats will see a succession of further #LibDemFightback milestones reached.

Sign up to back the Liberal Democrat referendum campaign at http://www.libdems.org.uk/europe.


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