Earlier this week, the excellent Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home, had a piece asking whether an EU-related referendum should be held on the same day as the General Election (for now, we'll leave aside the tiny detail of what a successful outcome from an EU referendum would be and indeed what the question should be).
"One of the reasons why the Conservative Party had such good results in last year's local elections was that many extra Tory voters came out to vote in order to defeat AV. Additionally we had the centre right press all united in campaigning hard against a change to the electoral system. This has led some Tory strategists to wonder if a referendum on the same day as the next general election might produce similar dividends."He goes on,
"Could a referendum on Britain's relationship with Europe, for example, ensure high energy levels among Tory leaflet deliverers and also high turnout amongst Tory-inclined voters? The extra advantage of a vote on Europe would be that it would reduce the incentive to vote for UKIP (ConHQ are increasingly concerned that a strong UKIP vote might again make the difference in many marginal seats). People could use the Europe referendum to register their scepticism about Brussels and at the same time vote Conservative to ensure Labour wasn't elected by the backdoor."
This is an interesting discussion, and Tim makes some very good points. But for what it's worth, we believe that this strategy, no matter what the question might be, would be a mistake. The reason is simple: most successful referendum campaigns have managed to take party politics out of the equation. By decoupling the referendum question from party politics, there's a far greater chance of building political momentum, and a majority 'national position', as the preferred answer would cut across party political divides.
For any Europe-related referendum this is particularly important, as Labour and Lib Dem voters would have a proportionally greater propensity to vote against European integration than their respective party leaderships and MPs. For example, 34% of Labour voters would vote to leave the EU if a referendum was held today (national average is 43%), according to a December poll. At the same time, 36% of Labour voters and 30% of Lib Dem voters are in favour of "less EU integration" according to another recent poll.
This inclination to vote against "more Europe" would be seriously undermined if a referendum was linked to the General Election, where voters would be more likely to vote 'under orders' along party political lines rather than on the issue at hand. (Incidentally, in the past, the dominant school of thought inside the Conservative Campaign Headqaurters has been that the more Europe is raised as an issue, the more likely people are to vote for UKIP. We're sceptical of that line of thinking).
Such a move could therefore prove an own-goal for those in favour of changing the UK-EU relationship. Better then to keep the two separate. Without taking a position on which question should be asked, that is.