During the first week of February, a council by-election was held in a little known ward in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham (LBHF): the Wormholt and White City (WWC) ward. Many people will probably not know where WWC ward is located, or even care. They may also believe that the WWC ward result has no relevance whatsoever for any parliamentary by-election or other parliamentary elections, other than filling a vacant seat on LBHF Council!
The WWC ward has traditionally been a Labour stronghold, and in recent years has always been a three horse race (no horsemeat implication intended), between Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. Labour historically always edging out Conservative candidates. Well that week, for the first time, the by-election became a six-horse race, and the ward by-election result was interesting. Labour increased its share of the vote to 68% up 7%; Conservatives had 12%, down approx 50%; and Liberal Democrat 10%, down approx 40% of the vote.Significantly UKIP, in its maiden ward challenge, achieved a 6% share of the vote. To recap, the Conservatives and Liberal Democratic parties lost between them 45% of the votes, with votes going to the Labour Party and UKIP. Now WWC may not be a microcosm of the national landscape but there is a message for David Cameron, I’m sure of that!
Let’s turn the clock back to 2010 for the moment and to the Conservative campaign during the 2010 General Election campaign. The most significant message that came from the local electorate, the key issues for people were Britain’s economic relationship with the EU, EU migration and the consequential impact on British jobs and social benefits . During that 2010 campaign, as I recall, I was asked only one question on the Big Society. This is something I recently discussed with Oliver Letwin MP, Minister of State, Cabinet Office, when he gave a talk at a Mile End Group meeting in November, 2012. “The European Union was the key issue with my local electorate”, I said to Oliver! “Not so, it was the Big Society, in mine” he replied. Well, not much of a discussion I hear you say! That may be so, but then the 2010 Conservative Manifesto based around the Big Society provided a vision of sorts – maybe – but the European Union was a key issue for the people.
This brings me to David Cameron’s EU speech, presented in London on 23rd January. The opening sentences, may I remind you, implied that the European Union had prevented war – it was a raison d’etre for its existence. A speech aimed more at placating the European Federalists and President Barosso’s EU Commission, than a vision for the people of the UK. Let’s not forget Britain joined the EEC for economic opportunity only, to benefit the people of the UK – not to prevent a European war. That fact is, some governments have been seduced into an inward-looking federalist EU, and the argument that the EU has prevented war in Europe is rolled out by socialists and federalists as a lame excuse for its very existence. Whatever happened to the economic arguments?
David Cameron may, for the time being, have placated some of his back bench EU critics with a promise of an EU referendum at some stage. However, what he so carefully achieved with his EU speech was not so much a promised referendum with “the can kicked down the road”, but “the can kicked into the long grass”. The electorate will not forget this manoeuvre. What in part is failing here is a Government vision on EU and International trade, one not reliant on a declining Single Market. It is no good talking about opting out and clawing back powers, this will not be achievable. The PM needs to say that the government will not sign up to any further EU Treaties, that further moves towards a Federalist EU are not acceptable to the British people, a line in the sand need to be drawn, and for the people to see that line. There is no point in being joined at the hip with the Liberal Democrats until the next General Election – establishing ‘a line in the sand’ position needs to happen – and that position explained to the people now. Key EU issues were sidelined for the 2010 General Election campaign, and that’s partly why we ended up with a coalition Government. A referendum is needed before the next election. Allowing the people a say on Europe in this parliament would have attracted support for the Conservatives and reigned in the UKIP – a missed opportunity.
Finally, is there a message here for the forthcoming Eastleigh parliamentary by-election candidates? Well I’m not a betting man, but I do think that those candidates/parties that have a clear vision of Britain’s future relationship with EU, a vision for an outward-looking economic policy, one looking to build on the rising economies of the world – they will have a strong showing. The EU referendum question is not going to go away!
© 2013 Dr Robert Frew. All rights reserved.