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Paul Abbott: We need a referendum on Europe - not Lords reform

Abbott PaulPaul Abbott works in politics with, the Parliamentary Academy, and Robert Halfon MP. Follow Paul on Twitter.

The headline figures on Anthony Wells’ blog, UKPollingReport, make for grim reading but are not a catastrophe. Conservative support rallied a touch before Christmas, before slouching back into our expected mid-term slump. But there are grounds for optimism. With the right emphasis, we could rally again.

My fear about House of Lords reform - with a referendum, or without one - is how massively, exhaustively, mind-bendingly dull it is to most people who are not hardcore political obsessives. Reforming the upper chamber is important. It is controversial. It may even be right. But it is unbelievably boring. We may as well campaign on algebraic fractions, Rubix Cubes, or getting the highest score on the Microsoft pinball game.

Imagine the exchanges on the doorstep. “Hello, we’re from the Conservatives! We’re fighting for House of Lords reform!” Answer: “Er...” The 2010 general election was fought tooth and nail on saving Britain from debt, taxes, and a lost decade of growth. In a globalised marketplace, the next election will be fought on the same lines. And the next one after that. And so on, and so on, to infinity. It is already hard enough to enthuse people - we shouldn’t deliberately send them to sleep.

That’s why if we’re itching for a referendum, the best option might be to adopt Tim Montgomerie's plan of an In/Out vote on Europe, timed to coincide with the next General Election. The arguments in favour of House of Lords reform are really at heart about the “democratic deficit” of appointed Peers. Fair enough, but surely, the biggest democratic deficit that we face is the whopping great one in Brussels? More importantly - it is the lack of any direct accountability in European institutions, not in the House of Lords, that truly incenses many voters in the Conservative family.

Unlike some, I’m not a headbanger on this issue. I’m actually in favour of the single market in the EU, and would like to see it extended. If there was a referendum, it would be extremely hard to say which way I would vote. But we need to give the lie to the Labour attack that Conservatives are “out of touch” with the concerns of strivers and ordinary families. Look at this graph, that IpsosMori published only a few days ago:

 Issues Facing Britain
The polling is clear. The public don’t really care about House of Lords reform. It is a “third term issue”. We shouldn’t waste time on it.


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