Thursday, May 19, 2005

A hostage to fortune

Newsnight yesterday was certainly taking the prospect of a British referendum seriously, despite the apparent confusion between Douglas Alexander, the new minister for Europe, and Jack Straw, over whether they would actually be one. Alexander maintains it would be held, irrespective of what the French do, while Straw argues – perhaps rightly – that there would be "no point" if a number of countries voted against.

Nevertheless, Paxman had the issue as his lead item, then having Lucy Powell for Britain in Europe and Matthew McGregor, styled as "Head of Campaigns – Vote-No", in the studio for a brief debate. I must say, I am getting a little confused about what the "no campaign" is really called.

Anyhow, Powell managed to lift Paxman's eyebrows well above ceiling height when she confidently asserted that the constitution had "nothing to do with Europe", a gaff from which she had great difficulty recovering.

But the "gaff of the week" award was definitely reserved for McGregor. In his anxiety to reassure Paxman that his group were not looking to leave the EU but simply "reform" it, he walked into the question of whether he (or his campaign) would agree to an "improved" constitution, one that was different from that on the table.

Said the hapless McGregor (I seem to be using that word rather a lot lately) – "I don't think there is anybody in the no campaign who is against a constitution".

Although Powell did not pick this up, no doubt, "yes" campaign tacticians were watching the "debate" closely, whence they must have whooped with joy. Their job is half done for them: a constitution is all right in principle – the no campaign says so - it is just a matter of reassuring the public on the detail. If ever there was a hostage to fortune, that must be it.

Looking at McGregor, barely out of his teens, one could not avoid thinking that a more seasoned campaigner would not have fallen so easily into such an obvious trap. However, it is possible that the sentiment reflects what passes for thinking in the "no campaign".

From the group photograph on the website, which looks more like a sixth-form college group than a serious campaign team, the suspicion is that thinking – and certainly experience – is not their forte.

What we are actually seeing is the result of the obsession of the money-men behind the scenes, who were determined to capitalise on the "yoof" image, in order to appeal to the younger voter. But the bunch of children in the frame is hardly likely to impress voters who, like me, have children older than some of the senior staff.

More importantly, perhaps, McGregor's gaff must surely arise from the proprietorial grip the campaign have on the referendum. They have not consulted with a wider audience; they have not taken soundings, nor asked for advice from people who have been in the game much longer then they. Nor, indeed, do they seem to know very much about their subject. And, while their pamphlet pleads for everyone to "work together", it is their organisation which has shown itself least prepared to work with anyone at all, outside the charmed circle.

Frankly, that is why we are setting up the people's campaign. This referendum is much bigger than all of us, and far too important to be left to a group of self-important, gaff-prone children, barely out of their teens. "Yoof" may be "cool" but experience and knowledge also have their place. We are not going to let it go to waste.

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