For some time now, the Liberal Democrats (and other pro-EU groups) have been trailing the use of the #whyiamIN hashtag as a hook for a campaign in favour of British membership of the Union. This week saw that step up a level with the launch of a new website (www.amillionjobs.org), with a centrepiece video by Nick Clegg used as a party political broadcast.
As someone who spends most of his time writing about euroscepticism, I’m interested in the way that such messages and attitudes are received, both by those who support the EU and by that (much larger) group who are more indifferent to it.
For a long time, pro-EU voices have been few and far between, partly relying on the weight of the system to defuse sceptics and partly because it hasn’t been enough of a priority, especially in electoral terms. It has only been in the past year or so that the situation has come to a point where more active interventions have been needed (if not necessarily actually occurring) : hence the stream of reports of this company or individual speaking out in favour of membership.
All of which raises a number of observations about #whyiamIN.
The first one concerns the purpose of the campaign. The LibDems are clearly building this up to be the centre of their EP election campaign, drawing in views from as wide a range of people as possible to create the conditions for a viral effect. Regardless of whether this happens or not, it suggests a willingness to expend considerable political capital on the message. In terms of party competition, that makes sense: no other party is likely to present such a positive spin on the EU, not even the Greens with their historical ambivalence about the liberal tendencies of the organisation. Both Labour and the Tories are too split and too concerned about closing down space for UKIP to consider such a play.
This raises a second point. The gamble here is that pro-European messages are still rare and people will be switched off by it. If we accept that EP elections are second-order (i.e. they are contested in terms of national issues, not European ones) then Clegg’s video looks more risky, since it says little about matters of national concern, even though the EP isn’t the body that decides them. Of course, this choice by the LibDems can be understood in terms of their not wanting to discuss their role in the coalition government (which they’ll save for the 2015 general election) and be their current poor standing in the polls, which might incline them to go for a more radical stance.
Finally, the campaign potentially marks an important step in any future campaign in a referendum on British membership. With the Westminster village increasingly of the view that such a vote is inevitable (not a view that I personally share), #whyiamIN sets out a marker for the YES campaign. If it succeeds in producing a good outcome for the LibDems, then it offers a template for 2017: by contrast, its failure would suggest that another approach is needed.
With this in mind, we might usefully watch the coming EP campaign more generally, since it might be the last time that British political parties debate (ostensibly) European issues before a referendum: the outcome of 2017 might be mapped out this May.
Dr Simon Usherwood is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Politics, University of Surrey.