You’ve caught me in the middle of a rather intense trip around the United Kingdom – 31 cities in 31 days – trying to persuade people, especially the young, to vote in the referendum on 23 June.
They had until 7 June to register. I hope they did. Now, the task is to encourage them to use their vote. If people don’t take their opportunity to determine their own future, other people will do it for them: their lives will be shaped by the decisions of others. How they vote is up to them. But I’ve been trying to encourage them to stand up for Europe and vote to remain.
I have always been clear that I hope one day to become a Labour politician and I am standing for the National Executive Committee in this summer’s elections. But what we are doing now is beyond party politics. This is why members of all parties are working together in the interests of keeping Britain in Europe.
If you are on the left and looking for reasons to stand up for Europe, there are plenty. Young people can freely work, travel and study across the continent. This kind of education and experience increases their ability to get jobs in the UK. And by 2030, there will be an additional 791,000 British jobs linked to our EU membership. Our universities are against a Leave vote because the EU provides much of the research funding on which they rely.
I strongly believe we are safer inside the Union. Surely it is logical that we are better able to defeat terrorism if security agencies all across the continent share information as a matter of course? Inevitably that is less likely to happen if we are not sitting round the same tables.
I have tried not to be partisan in this campaign because, as I’ve tramped around university campuses, I’ve had youngsters from all political angles asking me questions. There are good partisan reasons for staying in, though. Why do you think right-wingers are asking for Europe to – as they put it – ditch the red tape and regulations? That’s code for doing away with the European legislation that protects working people. The EU gives us paid holidays and maternity and paternity leave; provides protections for equal pay; ensures equal treatment for part-time and agency workers; and sets health and safety standards to keep workers safe. It also stops employers from forcing us to work more than 48 hours a week. We need to stay in Europe to protect those rights.
Being in Europe protects our living standards and it is our workers who benefit. If we want a high-wage, high-employment, high-skill economy that encourages entrepreneurs, strengthens productivity and provides opportunities for young people, Europe is crucial to all of that.
It is estimated that three to four million jobs are linked to our trade with Europe; over 200,000 UK businesses work with the continent. Being in Europe gives us lower prices in shops, with the average UK household saving over £350 a year.
The left believes in a world that spreads wealth, opportunity and power while reducing risk and exploitation. Membership of the EU helps that. Europe together, rather than the UK alone, is far more likely to wield its weight in international negotiations, such as those on climate change.
I didn’t want to have this referendum at all. It is reckless and puts our economy at risk. The Brexit infighting is a soap opera that is distracting from the real issues. But the prize for us is to reach out to Labour and other progressive voters, persuade them with our case and settle this debate for a generation.
We must secure a Remain vote. This is far more important than party politics. The country as a whole – including Labour, Lib Dem and Green voters and those who never vote – will suffer if we have to leave.
I am an optimistic supporter of Europe. I believe in it. I learned to speak French and German – and soon Spanish, too – so that I could go to the continent and do my “3:3:3” gigs: three shows, three languages, three hours. I worked hard but Europe gave me the opportunity to do that. I can’t believe there are so many people out there who want to pull up the drawbridge and close off those opportunities. As I’ve told my audiences everywhere, we can’t run and hide from Europe – we have to stand and fight for our place.
I’ve been driven throughout this campaign by statistics showing that while the elderly are more likely to be Eurosceptic and more likely to vote, the young are more likely to be pro-Europe but less likely to vote. I’ve urged the young – and I still do – to have a word with their parents and grandparents. They may be voting Leave for long-standing reasons and I would not doubt their sincerity. But they need to think carefully. If their children and grandchildren are saying the opposite, because they believe that their chances in life will be limited by an exit from the EU, they should at least give them a good hearing.
It is too late now to register. But my argument to the young remains the same. You took the trouble to get yourself on the register; now follow it to the logical conclusion and vote. Otherwise, someone else will decide how you spend the remaining five, six, seven or eight decades of your lives.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe