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Thursday, March 08, 2012

The pitfalls of holding an EU referendum on election day

Amid the last-minute efforts to finalise the details on the Greek debt swap, just a couple of thoughts on UK domestic politics vis-a-vis the 'EU referendum question'.

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).

Tim notes,
"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.


Denis Cooper said...

As a general rule I'm against holding a referendum on the same day as an election.

In fact I'm against holding local elections on the same day as parliamentary elections.

Yes, I know it saves money to combine polls, but those savings are dwarfed by the potential losses which can be the consequence of the electorate making the wrong choices because the waters have been muddied by two or more different campaigns being run in parallel prior to polling day.

Bernard Jenkin MP said...

Tim's piece is thought-provoking but OE is right to resist his suggestion, not least because referendum-election tactics could too easily be used destructively, and for this reason combining referendums and elections is wrong in principle.

Will Podmore said...

It would be good to have a referendum - whenever!
After all those broken promises ...

Geoff Dickson said...

I agree with Will Podmore any referendum on the EU is preferable to not having one. As an employer and manufacturer the EU is shutting us down slowly, if we vote to stay in then so be it. The argument that we lose trading partners, we still import more than we export so its in the best interest of the EU to stay on good terms.

Ken La Garde said...

The one main problem the Conservatives have is that they make promises to hold a seperate referedum but do not honour them.
So why not vote UKIP.
Only problem then is that the labour party would do a deal for a coalition with UKIP just to get back in!!!
What a mess.

Anonymous said...

The question regarding a referendum
on Britain's Membership of the EU, is this.
Why have none of the major political parties carried out a Cost vs Benefit Analysis of Britain's Membership of the EU, and why haven't the UK electorate been informed of the results of the analysis?

This is the only way that a referendum can take place, after the facts are made available to all.

The British people have been lied to far too often on the EU benefits, and now is the time for the truth to be told. Anything other than a CBA is just another bunch of lies on the part of politicians.
What do you think - For or Against?

Gosporttory said...

The 3 main parties are against giving us a referendum because it is abundantly clear how we would all vote....They therefore cannot allow a democratic vote when it would go against the political elite looking for a better paid job later on in their lives via the EU Gravy Train.

Rik said...

A lot of movement on this issue. Poles on this on and de facto on the Euro. Sarkozy and the Dutch on Schengen. Mainly caused by the Euro mess.
It looks like there is a lot of support for a major overhaul. Not only with the resp. populations but also with a lot of governments (although on different issues).

Probably the UK is best served with a better EU. More a common market iso another layer of expensive governance while effectively tot. costs of governance has to be reduced to remain competitive and to keep via lower taxes the standard of living for the middle classes at the same level.

The question is how to achieve this? Basically use the referendum or treath thereof as a tool to get a) this in the agenda; b) UK with a prominent place there; c) with very likely results.

Rollo said...

The good thing is that one of the parties might unequivocally offer this referendum; in which case most will vote for them. After all, the vital importance of getting out of the EU far outweighs any fag-paper thin differences between the three quisling parties.

David Barneby said...

There is a strong possibility that events may overtake an EU referendum , such as a a Greek default . A Referendum on Britains membership of the EU should be held separately and before the next general election . There is no question of an EU reforming itself from within . I saw Maastricht as a grave mistake and now the EU has already failed . The only way possible is too abolish the present EU and maybe start again on looser , freer lines , without any of the laws , rules and regulation and politics. For those who fear another war in Europe , we are nearer that now than any time since 1945 .