In/Out, In/Out, Shake It All About

The EU has been a distraction shouting on the sidelines of more pressing political debates for too long now. Let's have a referendum and kill the issue for good.

The European Union seems to be the flavour de jour at the moment. It’s probably partly due to the fact that the eurozone (contrary to popular belief, not the same thing) is in meltdown. It’s probably also partly due to the fact that euroscepticism has become one of the principle markers of “right wing” now that openly hating poor people is considered uncivilised.

But whatever the reason, next week will see a House of Commons debate on whether there should be a referendum on our continued membership of the EU. It’s a backbench motion, so not binding on the government, but anyone who knows their political history will know quite how destructive Europe can be as an issue for the Conservative Party. It brought down Thatcher, proved a continual thorn in the side of Major, and left the public with a decidedly unsavoury impression of the Tories for years.

So I’m sure Cameron will welcome this motion like a hole in the head. They’ve even moved it forward, from Thursday to Monday, so he can attend. How generous of them!

Now, I should declare an interest: I’m (broadly) pro-EU. It’s far from perfect, but in a basic in/out referendum I would vote in. Because I genuinely believe that it’s in the best interests of the country. In a three-pronged referendum, offering choices of in/out/renegotiation-and-reform, or as I like to call it “shake it all about”, I’d probably lump for the hokey cokey option.

The fun thing about this motion is that it seems to be causing huge headaches for everyone who isn’t me. Allow me to explain the various parties’ objections.

Our (somewhat) eurosceptic Prime Minister and his government feels trapped between a hard place and a rock. It’s easy to be slaveringly eurosceptic and ally your party with “nutters, anti-semites, people who deny climate change exists and homophobes” when you’re in opposition, but when you’re in government you actually have to work with the EU. So he can whip his party to vote against a referendum, which a) risks pissing off an already pissed off Conservative right wing, and b) would make a referendum-winning rebellion. Or he could give his party a free vote, which would run the very real risk of passing the motion.

Rampant eurosceptics, too, seem to be hesitant about it. The thinking ones, at least. Alex Singleton, writing on the Daily Mail website, says that in just such a three-option referendum the “better off out crowd” would lose to the much more reasonable third choice. He’s right, in my opinion. Which is all the more reason to do it.

You see, I’d quite like a referendum I think. The eurosceptics, with UKIP at the head, have been screaming for one for ages. I say we give it to them. They would object to a three-choice referendum, naturally, but if they argued against it then the clear comeback is that they’re trying to use the question to influence the result. Also, when the majority chose to renegotiate/reform the EU, then we can actually move on and make a positive improvement to it. That, surely, is both in the best interest of democracy and the country.

The fact that it would split the Conservative Party, drive Cameron to the brink of nervous breakdown and put an end to UKIP’s bleating and raison d’être is just a bonus.

UKIP – Talking in Circles

I wasn’t going to do this. I really wasn’t. The idea of a response to UKIP’s election literature seems like the epitome of daft. But I know that some people like their ideas, and what seems silly to me doesn’t to everyone else. But the rubbish that came through my door, from UKIP candidate Andy Heape, was more than rampant euroscepticism. It was just barmy.

I’ll confess that I haven’t seen much of UKIP’s election literature before, apart from a few national leaflets which were exactly what I would have expected. This is the first local leaflet I’ve seen, and it seems to be mostly waffle. Really, there are a few problems I see with it.

Firstly, it seems to have no bearing on the Ward. This is a by-election in Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe, with a very specific cause behind it. Now, the main people UKIP would be aiming to take votes from are the Tories, whose fault this by-election this is and all of the other parties are hitting them over it. But strangely not UKIP.

Equally, all of the pledges made seem horribly general. For example, saving hospital services. The nearest major hospital is the Royal Berkshire  Hospital. To the best of my knowledge it isn’t under threat, and even if it was, it’s outside of Wokingham Borough Council’s jurisdiction, and so is irrelevant to this election. The only pledges with any locational specificity are for a purpose-built library, and regarding green belt and urbanisation in East Berkshire. The latter is very general, and the former doesn’t make any sense. Wargrave library is perfectly adequate, and a fantastic old building. It most certainly doesn’t need to be replaced.

But maybe he means Twyford library. For the uninitiated, Twyford library is a series of portacabins, which isn’t really fit for purpose, and does need replacing. Plans have even been approved by Twyford Parish Council for the building of a new Community Hub, incorporating the library. But there’s one slight problem: it’s not in the ward.

Now, I’m sure plenty of people in Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe do use Twyford library. I’ve used it myself. But this is indicative of something bigger. Mr Heape is not a resident within the ward. It doesn’t even seem that he knows much at all about the ward and the concerns of the people there. And this sort of thing seems very close to the problems with Cllr Stretton, to whom the concerns of local residents didn’t matter.

But beyond Mr Heape himself, there are problems with some of his ideas. Leading the UKIP local agenda is the suggestion that local people should be able to call a binding referendum on local issues. It’s a nice idea on paper, giving local people a direct say over local issues. But that’s what we elect representatives for. And elections  (including referendums) are expensive. A parish election costs in the region of £3,000. This by-election will cost £9,000. Do we really have the money to call a referendum over every planning permission request?

I agree that there needs to be greater transparency and representation in local government. But the turnout in the AV referendum was painfully low. The turnout in this by-election probably won’t be high. Local people will be too apathetic to troop to the polling station every week to vote on an incredibly minor issue, and it will end up costing a fortune to achieve nothing at all.

The ironic part is that the leaflet header bears the legend “Straight talking”. This tosh seems anything but.