So Jackie Ashley is angry I tell you. Angry! We need to be “brutally honest” that the “remain campaign is failing” she writes. Well, what a sodding surprise. A campaign entitled “Britain Stronger in Europe” was never going to light anyone’s fire, was it. Run by Will Straw, relying on the strategic advice of Peter Mandelson, and funded by Lord Sainsbury, it’s like Britain in Europe from the 1990s, warmed up for another shot twenty years later. Relying on David Cameron is not enough, Ashley writes – yes, but what else is there?
She lists the Labour politicians who ought to be able to put up a fight – Johnson, Umunna, Cooper, Hunt, Kendall and Reeves, Benn – but actually, why should any of them really want to bother? None of them has ever really cared about EU questions, even though, if pushed, they’ll all say they are pro-EU.
The problem is that none of the politicians on the Remain side actually really, deeply, emotionally care about the EU and this referendum, and it shows. They all give the impression that their own lives will go on regardless of what happens in this vote on 23rd June. Since the dying days of Blair, Labour has just wanted EU issues to disappear off the agenda – to be seen to be too pro-EU was a danger in that it might mean attacks from the newspapers, while being an EU-sceptic landed you with Kelvin Hopkins and Kate Hoey, somewhere you would equally not want to be. So a stodgy lip service to the EU cause ensued. This is not only confined to Labour; their equivalents in the pro-EU side of the Tory Party and the rump of the Lib Dems are largely the same. Compare that to the fiercely held passions of the Brexit advocates, and it is no surprise that Ashley feels that the Remain side is failing. But just going “ohh, up your game!” – which seems to be the gist of her article – isn’t going to cut it.
Yes, I might be odd, but actually the EU matters to me, but it feels like it does not for anyone on the Remain side. For better or worse EU shaped more or less all of what I’ve done – partially since the age of 14, more or less fully since the age of 21. If Britain leaves this messes up my life. I have an affinity for other Europeans, I’ve lived and experienced what good the EU can do. How many UK politicians actually ever, really, have experienced that? The only two on the Labour side who seem really touched by the whole thing are Richard Corbett and Roger Liddle, and their role is marginal in the campaign it seems. The only people who do actually seem to care in this referendum on the Remain side are people whose lives will be clearly and directly affected by a Leave vote – scientists and environmentalists for the EU. The only person eloquently able to refute Michael Gove (and Ashley in the Westminster bubble was unaware of it) was my friend Anthony Zacharzewski, again someone whose personal story means the EU is more than just a single market.
But most British people are not like you might rightly be the reply. Yes, fair enough, that’s a fair accusation. But surely a case for the EU that is passionately and determinedly made and calls upon the array of arguments for Remain that play to all sorts of audiences is going to be a better bet than a politician just trotting out the same old lines due to obligation rather than intrinsic motivation? To put it another way, a message delivered without conviction sounds hollow, and that’s precisely the issue for the Remain side just now.
So Jackie Ashley and, indeed, the people from the Stronger In campaign: there are people in the UK who care about the EU. They can do it from a wide variety of different standpoints, with various experience, and they have an ability to talk about the EU with determination and vigour. You just will not find those people on the front bench of any of the parties. So use your newspaper columns to give alternative voices some publicity, rather than complaining that front line politicians are not active now on an issue that’s bored them for a decade.