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Britain’s pro-EU campaign must have a ‘personal and local’ focus beyond economics

One can claim that the European Union is about jobs and prosperity generally, yet without tangible personal examples and people-orientated arguments the case for remaining in the EU becomes abstract – writes Tim McNamara

Why is the pro-European Union case so business-orientated? In the televised debate with EU-outer Nigel Farage of UKIP, the opposing Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s positive arguments were mainly based on the business case for the single market. On immigration, democratic accountability and so on he was extremely defensive.

Europhile lobby groups such as The Centre for British Influence and Business for a New Europe continually argue that United Kingdom companies would suffer if the UK left the EU. The British car industry has recently signed-up to the pro-EU cause well in advance of a putative referendum in 2017.

The arguments for the pro-EU case rarely focus on people, unless they are classified as employees. The farcical claim that three million jobs are at risk if Blight left the EU is symptomatic of the paucity of ideas that the current pro-European campaigns suffer from. The simplistic notion that the debate can be reduced to the calculation of how many jobs are at stake is risible and in the case of the claimed three million, it is simple scaremongering.

The defensiveness about the UK’s membership of the EU allied to the failure to take UKIP on signals not only a lack of confidence but also a stasis in the seemingly lost art of political campaigning. The developing alienation of the trade union movement from the pro-European cause is also indicative of the failure to develop a broad-based coalition.

One can claim that the EU is about jobs and prosperity generally, yet without tangible personal examples and people-orientated arguments the case for remaining in the EU becomes abstract. It can also be perceived as elitist and self-interested if it is seen to be dominated by business leaders and self-appointed experts.

There is also a patronising vestige from veteran Europhile campaigners who ‘fought the good fight’ in the 1970s. They see that the success of that campaign was heavily focused on political leaders and influential opinion formers. Yet it was also carried out in a very narrow media landscape that was overwhelmingly in favour of continued membership.

It is all very well focusing on social media as a panacea response to the overwhelming Eurosceptic tinge in the national media but what UKIP understands is that minds are more likely to be changed on the doorstep, rather than a string of tweets from a lobby group. The number of likes on Facebook is no substitute for hard street-level intelligence based on doorstep canvassing.

Local campaigning is still the bedrock of any political movement and UKIP seem to have significant numbers of highly-motivated cadres willing to spend time proselytizing their core message. This is aided by the simple mantra of finding out what is bothering people and then always blaming it on EU membership. For example – rising energy prices, floods, street crime and ‘hordes’ of immigrants are all often linked to EU membership.

The localism concept adopted by UKIP also utilises the copy-hungry local print media to reinforce their message. Press releases specifically drafted for local papers are a key part of their campaigning strategy. Constant repetition of the same theme with varied examples is the bread and butter of local UKIP activists. The proliferation of free newspapers and the slashing of journalism jobs create a free-for-all – for those willing to write journalistic copy for free. This vacuum has been partly filled by UKIP and is central to their campaigning.

Local activism based on personal experiences that voters can relate to should be the heart of a pro-EU campaign. Immigration may seem a highly contentious issue but where it is a matter of local interest, there can be many positive sides to intra-EU migration. The popularity of television programmes such as A Place in the Sun demonstrates that many people are aspirational. One million Brits living in Spain are an example of the benefits of EU membership.

It is ok to point out that places like Sunderland and Swindon may lose their car plants if the UK left the EU. But if you do not live in those places the consequences are abstract. Yet the supply chain for businesses across the UK that rely on being in the European club spreads its tentacles all across the EU. It is by placing the argument in a local context with personal examples that we will decisively underpin a pro-EU campaign

If the Europhile offensive fails to implement a long-term campaign strategy based on local activism at its heart, it will fail miserably to get across its core messages. And we will undoubtedly lose any future referendum.

Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission

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