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8 March 2016

EU campaigners should stop talking about process

The problem with the John Longworth row is that nobody cares.

By Henry Zeffman Henry Zeffman

Have you heard about John Longworth? On the Clapham omnibus they speak of little else.

Longworth was, until Sunday, the director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, which represents chambers of commerce across the country and, through them, over 5 million employees. Last week, prior to his resignation, Longworth had been suspended from his role after advocating a vote to leave the EU in June. Boris Johnson, the evangelist for Brexit who once argued that the EU should be enlarged to include Turkey, said that the BCC’s decision was “scandalous” and that Longworth had been “crushed by the agents of project fear”.

The case for the prosecution against Longworth is simple: his job was to represent the views of the BCC membership. The BCC had endorsed a position of neutrality during the referendum campaign. By advocating Brexit, Longworth contravened his mandate.

Supporters of the Leave campaign tell a more sinister story, where Longworth was suspended because of pressure from Downing Street. A story in today’s Daily Mail reports that Daniel Korski, a special adviser to David Cameron, telephoned Longworth after he came out for Brexit to express his anger.

And then the latest twist is that the deputies and advisers to Mayor of London Boris Johnson (the same Boris Johnson who decried Longworth’s resignation) had been ordered to publicly back Brexit or keep their views private. But then Johnson reversed that edict last night, and said that he is eager to “let a hundred flowers bloom”.

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There’s just one problem with this row.

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Nobody cares.

This saga is utterly irrelevant. Worse, it actively obscures the referendum debate for a public that is mostly uninterested or confused. Polling released today by the Electoral Reform Society finds that just 12 per cent say they feel “well informed” about the June referendum, along with a minuscule 4 per cent who are “very well informed”. Just under half of respondents – 46 per cent – feel poorly or very poorly informed about the referendum debate, including 38 per cent of those who say they will definitely vote.

These figures are woeful. Yes, the referendum is three months away, and greater public attention will inevitably arrive nearer the time. Still, it already feels as if all other UK politics has been suspended: the EU debate is receiving far greater coverage than the local elections and the contests in the nations that precede it in May. More people should be more engaged by now. There is a great danger that this referendum fails to grab the attention of enough people, and so the clarity of the outcome is undermined by low turnout.

The Electoral Reform Society has its own solutions, including a commitment from key campaigners to take part in televised debates, the provision of speakers for local discussions, and balanced and fact-based coverage of the issue in the media. Perhaps that will help.

But what surely won’t help is an arcane process argument about whether a man nobody has heard of was forced to resign from a role nobody knows exists. Both campaigns owe it to themselves, and to the voting public, to do better than muttering darkly about the tactics of their opponents.