A UKIP victory in May would force a referendum on Britain’s membership. If Britain is to see progress inside or outside of the EU, this has to happen. The issue of Europe is holding back effective policy as no government is brave enough too move too close or too far from the EU for fears of a public backlash. Just as the Scottish referendum will settle one issue, a vote on EU membership will end the debate for at least a generation. EU supporters and EU critics need a strong public mandate to act upon. Let’s get one.
Unfortunately only one party seems to grasp this. Love or hate Nigel Farage, at least he wants to give Britain a choice rather than continuing to patronise and evade the public. Who can blame him given the surge in UKIP support as the days of being derided as a bunch of right wing loons fade away. His dominant display in the televised debates against feeble and non-existent opposition has helped. YouGov’s snap poll gave the second debate to Mr Farage by 68% to 27%, while a poll by ICM/Guardian suggested 69% of people watching thought the UKIP man came out on top. Labour and the Conservatives fared poorly, with zero respondents saying they won the debate. Both parties will hope their supporters turn up to vote even if their leaders don’t turn up to speak.
Nigel Farage’s dominant display against Nick Clegg has given him a great opportunity. With the other major parties seemingly afraid to take him on he has been allowed to set the political agenda. He is also the only leader who shows any interest in mobilising the public rather than placating them. David Cameron may be right about Clegg and Farage representing the extremes of opinion on Europe but his refusal to make a case publically has surrendered the initiative. Vague promises of renegotiation with Europe simply won’t cut it.
Miliband did himself more damage by arguing that UKIP should be excluded from the leaders debates next year. Someone ought to tell him that trying to marginalise popular opinion doesn’t go down too well in politics. He may hope that UKIP will undermine Tory support enough for Labour to win in Europe and in Westminster. However if he thinks he can keep quiet about Europe and not lose support he is sorely mistaken. Many working class people see something in Nigel Farage. However at present Labour seems content to ignore the issue. Shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry said voters were more concerned about “making ends meet” than the future of Europe. Is she trying to say the public can only care about one thing at a time? Having a strong opinion on Europe and caring about making ends meet are not mutually exclusive.
It is quite something when the two main parties write off a major election as a non issue. Their disregard for the elections betrays the fact that the European Parliament is a powerless mess. Labour and the Conservatives would rather gain nothing from the EU elections than risk losing something by taking on Farage in a contest that they ultimately see as trivial. Can anyone smell a democratic deficit?
Still, nothing can quite top the efforts of Nick Clegg to become the most hated man in Britain. If peddling lame jokes and sounding like a broken record weren’t bad enough, Clegg went out of his way to insult and patronise the public. In the style of a remedial class teacher Clegg lectured the audience on ‘something called the Lisbon Treaty’ whilst trying to deceive the public by lying about the amount of legislation originating from Brussels. He made a paltry effort of defending Britain’s membership. Even Farage seemed disappointed. After all Clegg did write a book on the subject.
The sad thing is there is a genuine case to be made for staying in Europe. However, instead of risking votes by opening the debate on Europe, the major parties banked on Nigel Farage making a fool of himself and scuttling his own ship. This happened when the BNP took the spot light on Question Time in 2009. That hasn’t happened to UKIP. The major parties will not be able to ignore them. That is what happens when you let Nick Clegg, the least popular man in Britain, champion the least popular issue.
There are reasons not to have referendums. The standard argument is that the public does not have the time, resources, or expertise to make an informed decision. In the case of the EU it is different. The British public does have an interest in the EU, which is quite a feat given how dull the whole thing is. Indeed its dullness seems to be what people are so angry about; 40 years of endless committees and faceless bureaucrats making boring laws about boring things. Hopefully this attitude will propel UKIP to victory in May. However when the time comes to vote on Britain’s membership one hopes there will be a strong spokesman for continued membership. Something as important as this needs calm, well informed debate. Popularism might hand Britain the referendum it needs, but it should not be allowed to walk over the issue when it comes to decision time.
 Clegg, Nick, and Michiel Van Hulten. Reforming the European Parliament. Foreign Policy Centre, 2003.