I should start by admitting to a strange hobby. Where other people collect stamps, coins or cigarette cards, I hoard examples of inept political campaigning.
I cherish the memory of the march on Westminster by disgruntled university teachers, each carrying a placard featuring the stirring battle cry, “Rectify the Anomaly”. Why, you could almost feel the waves of solidarity from passing bus conductors and taxi drivers! Then there was the inspired pragmatism of a group of Leamington Spa animal rights activists. When, after much agonising, they threw a brick through a halal butcher’s shop window, they had wrapped the brick in a piece of paper carrying the scribbled reassurance “This is not a racist attack!”. How relieved the butchers must have been the next morning when they discovered it was vegetarian not fascist motives that lay behind the shattered plate glass.
Now I have another example. In the same week as Britain in Europe’s controversial launch, a postcard arrived from the group. Under the headline “Which of these politicians supports the Britain in Europe campaign?”, there are four pictures, marked (a) to (d), of Michael Heseltine, Tony Blair, Kenneth Clarke and Charles Kennedy, in that order.
The answer, obviously, is all of them, but that still leaves several other questions in my mind.
For a start, why was this order chosen – surely the implication is not that while the pictures go left to right the politics go the reverse way? More significantly, if we assume that this is a campaign device intended for the general public, why does anyone think these four middle-aged males will serve the cause?
The reality is that most members of the public already think that the European Union, and the single currency in particular, are being foisted on them by the political establishment. That’s why the polls that find a growing majority against the UK joining the euro also find that most people are resigned to losing the pound eventually.
William Hague may be accident-prone and incapable of facing down his own Eurosceptic ultras but, in choosing to campaign from the back of a lorry, he shows an understanding of his strongest card. It is simply that the debate over the euro is increasingly seen by the citizenry as a battle between us and them, in which us means ordinary British people and them means blokes in suits in London and Brussels.
Since the referendum of 1975, all pro-European campaigns have consistently failed to popularise their message. While the opponents of Europe are such traditional British figures as farmers, fishermen and tabloid journalists, its advocates are always men in suits.
To be fair, European enthusiasts have been aware of this problem. But their efforts to stir the masses have usually been risible. When attending a European socialist meeting in Brussels before the 1994 European elections, I remember being told by a very earnest member of the German SPD about plans to tour European towns with a 20-metre square quilt stitched by young Europeans; each patch, he told me, depicted a symbol of international solidarity.
As a committed European and a supporter of UK entry to the single currency, I would urge Britain in Europe to have four different faces on its postcard. How about a taxi driver, the owner of a corner shop, an England footballer and a second world war veteran?
Britain in Europe does have ambitious plans to extend its campaign to street level, but this is unlikely to make any impact unless the government’s message-masters make two changes to their strategy.
First, how about using some basic new Labour skills in selling Europe? The most effective photo opportunity by an overseas leader in Britain in recent years was Bill Clinton eating chips and drinking beer with the regulars of a pub in Birmingham. Alastair Campbell wouldn’t dream of letting Tony Blair or David Blunkett announce an initiative in a suit outside a hotel – they would be in a classroom next to small children and shiny computers. If we can try to make British politicians seem human, isn’t it time we did it for our European partners?
So next time Lionel Jospin comes to visit, get him out of his suit and take him down to a school in Peckham to spend ten minutes being photographed in a French lesson. As for Gerhard Schroder, play on our bizarre fascination with the last world war by having him pictured addressing the Stoke-on-Trent British Legion. Have Wim Kok selling tulips outside Victoria station, Antonio Guterres in a tapas bar in Birmingham. Yes, I know it’s crass. But crassness has never stopped the Eurosceptics, and that’s why they are winning the debate.
And while we’re about it, can we address the biggest contradiction in our pro- European case – namely, that while Blair and his team never tire of telling us how the UK is the best economy in Europe, they also tell us that we have to force reluctant continentals to adapt to the modern global knowledge economy. Every time they do this, the people of Britain think: “Well, if we are so much better than them, why on earth would we want to join their club?” The reality is that most of the major European economies enjoy a higher productivity and better public services than us and have fewer people living in poverty. Yes, we have things to teach them, but they have as many to teach us.
The single currency is about as popular in Britain as was the Labour Party in the 1980s.
If the tide is going to turn, it will require the same single-minded, take-no-prisoners, voter-focused determination that built new Labour. And time is running out.
Matthew Taylor is director of the Institute for Public Policy Research