Lorraine Mullally: The Conservatives must respond to the public hunger for powers to be taken back from Europe
Lorraine Mullally of Open Europe says that voters are ready for real reform of the EU and next June's European Elections are an opportunity for David Cameron to provide it.
With Glenrothes out the way, the next big electoral contest in the calendar is the European elections in June 2009. That might seem a relatively long way off, but the Conservatives have got some serious thinking to do before then.
Europe is going to be a bigger issue than some in the party would like it to be. The Euro elections offer an opportunity to make some early headway on this powerful issue which, if mishandled, has the potential to wreak havoc.
When the Government lined up with the Lib Dems to prevent the promised referendum on the Lisbon Treaty back in the spring, it left a bad taste in the mouths of voters.
And while the world’s eyes are on Obama and the credit crisis, people in the Brussels bubble continue their dreary obsession with pushing through the Lisbon Treaty – despite the minor issue of its rejection by the people of France, the Netherlands and Ireland.
By the time we get to the European elections, some stitch-up will be well underway for ratifying the Treaty in Ireland – whether it be a second referendum, or some messy fudge involving the hijacking of Croatia’s accession treaty.
All this has the potential to remind British voters what a sham EU democracy really is, and reignite some of the anger that propelled more than 150,000 people in only ten constituencies to turn out and vote in the I Want A Referendum campaign earlier this year.
How the public lost faith in Brussels
The Europhiles argue that the public find Europe boring and don’t really care about it. This argument reflects the underlying weakness of their position. It may be true that other things are higher on the public’s list of priorities, but the European elections will bring the EU into focus as an issue. And when the public do think about Europe, their view is clear.
The EU is now the least popular it has been in Britain in 25 years. Not since 1983, when Thatcher was haggling for the UK rebate, has it been so unpopular. According to European Commission polls, at a high point in 1991, 57% of British people thought the EU was broadly a good thing, compared to 13% who thought it was a bad thing. Now, only 30% of British voters think EU membership is a good thing, compared to 32% who think it is a bad thing. This is despite the fact that all the main parties are broadly in favour of EU membership.
Add to that the result of the ITN poll taken recently in Luton, in which, out of 3,000 voters, a stunning 54% said they favoured leaving the EU, while only 35% wanted to stay in.
The median voter is now strongly in favour of taking powers back from the EU. At the European elections, they are going to want to see people who reflect their feeling of disenfranchisement and who are willing to do something about it.
It would be madness for candidates to ignore this clear message of strong public discontent with the EU.
Failing to address it would show them up in the same light as the Government, and the European Commission, both of which have forged ahead with the Lisbon Treaty, despite poll after poll after poll showing voters are firmly against it.
The “won’t vote” party
The threat for the Conservatives is less that they will lose votes to UKIP, and more that they will fail to energise voters. Their biggest competitor party is the “won’t vote” party.
Turnout at the last elections was just 38%. In other words the “won’t vote” party made up 62% of the electorate, compared to just 10% for the Conservatives and 8% for Labour.
In focus groups over recent years people have often told us they think that although the Conservatives talk about taking a tough line in Brussels, “if they got in they would probably just go along with it.”
It is this toxic cocktail of cynicism and apathy that is the main problem for the Conservatives. They need the kind of clear, strong message we saw in William Hague’s successful 1999 campaign.
New politics versus old
So what can candidates actually do to represent change? Voters need to be given some kind of hope that the people they elect have some means of impacting on the fraud, waste and lack of accountability they see coming from Brussels and Strasbourg.
First of all, MEPs could start by responding to Open Europe’s Transparency Initiative, launched earlier this year, which gives MEPs the opportunity to show the public that their expenses and staff allowances are being spent fairly and transparently.
So far, Green MEPs have been the most responsive, with a 100% reply rate. By contrast, only half of all Conservative MEPs responded to the survey, leaving questions over the remaining MEPs’ attitudes to public accountability. Among those failing to respond were James Elles and Timothy Kirkhope – the two contenders for the leadership contest on 18 November. Why have they not responded?
In his Birmingham speech, David Cameron said unequivocally and to loud applause that his commitment to “sorting out our broken politics” extended to Europe. He said, “this is about the judgment to see how important this issue is for the credibility of politics and politicians. And it's about having the character to take on vested interests inside your own party.”
That was a wonderful moment, and it must surely mean that those who have done the wrong things cannot stand again...
Secondly, the party leadership should now be drafting a manifesto for June which makes some serious commitments to reform, and paves the way for some even more careful thinking on Europe ahead of the General Election. These do not need to be comprehensive or overly detailed, as there will be time for further reflection later. But they need to lay the groundwork and give voters some inclination what they might expect from a Conservative government.
For starters, one idea would be a promise not to approve the EU’s next financial framework (which we can veto) without a number of reforms.
One such reform might be progress on the world trade round. Europe’s protectionism is the main obstacle to a poverty-relieving deal. Another might be action to sort of the EU’s failing environmental policies. Another might be measures to stop the flood of EU rules and regulations (there are 2,000 new ones every year) from crippling our small businesses.
Another big demand might be a serious assessment of the fraud, waste and misallocation of resources that currently dogs the EU budget. Remember: the EU budget hasn’t signed been off by the Court of Auditors for 13 years in a row, and the EU’s own figures show that it loses a million pounds every working day to fraud and irregularities.
There are also big things the Conservatives could do without asking anyone in Brussels.
They could introduce the parliamentary scrutiny system common in Scandinavia, whereby Ministers must seek a mandate to sign up to EU laws from the cross-party European Scrutiny Committee. This would help our Parliament stop its powers from haemorrhaging away to Brussels.
How to win friends and influence people
David Cameron has already promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty if it is not ratified by the time he gets to government, as well as a clear commitment to pull the party out of the EPP after the European elections. He must now build on this to show that his individual candidates are up to the job of campaigning for real change.
This means they need to be fully prepared to show exactly what “we will not let matters rest there” really means. There is no better time to showcase this than in June when voters go to the polls – with the bullying of the Irish (and the cancelled UK referendum) likely to be fresh in their minds.
At the moment voters don’t feel they can make an impact in European elections. But the Conservatives certainly can make an impact on voters – sending out a message that their commitment to “hope” and “change” extends all the way to Brussels and Strasbourg.