31 December 2015

Britain’s Big Decision on EU needs a big referendum

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The EU referendum will give Britons one of the most important choices in a generation, writes Sunder Katwala. Yet many voters are undecided, unaware or simply not bothered. We think such a big decision needs a big referendum – one that engages as much of the country as possible in the choice we all have to make.

A big referendum could be good for our democracy. It gives more legitimacy to the decision we make as a country – whichever way it goes, In or Out.

We all saw the effect that Scotland’s independence referendum had on its politics, engaging a nation and securing the highest turnout for any UK vote. A few people will also remember 2011’s referendum on electoral reform – which few people noticed or took part in. It’s clear which one we should be trying to emulate.

The EU referendum is an opportunity to take politics out of the Westminster bubble and into people’s town halls and front rooms. We shouldn’t miss that chance.

Polling stn. [Flickr_secretlondon123] 230x200The Third Campaign should be allocated free-to-air broadcasting during the campaign period, with a specific focus on engaging groups of voters who are least likely to vote – and who could vote either way. Younger voters are thought to be more pro-European, while unskilled workers are usually more Eurosceptic. The Third Campaign would seek to engage with young voters, unskilled workers, rural voters, ethnic minorities and with non-graduate women– as some of the groups likely to need more encouragement to take part.

It would also seek to attract pro bono support from the great and good of advertising and PR and provide employers, schools and colleges, charities and the media with impartial advice on how they can support the effort to get everybody involved in making Britain’s big decision, while remaining neutral on the referendum question.


The independence, integrity and neutrality of such a campaign would be paramount. It should be overseen by the Electoral Commission and by representatives of the rival ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ campaigns to ensure it remains non-partisan.

Kenny Imafidon of political engagement campaigners Bite the Ballot, who are backing calls for a Third Campaign, said:

“It is essential we inspire voters to get engaged in political discussions about the pros and cons of Europe, replicating the success of Scotland’s referendum which breathed new life into its politics.

“Both campaigns must ensure that participation is their first priority and second, that they present facts and avoid sensationalised stories that prevent people from making informed decisions.

“This is a massive decision for all citizens here in the UK and one that we should not leave to others to make for us! Everyone must have a say.”

Eurosceptic Daniel Hannan MEP said:

“I support this challenge for all sides to push for a high participation referendum. ​I hope the referendum becomes a kind of collective national festival, a celebration of our country’s potential. We will win this campaign, not by convincing people that Brussels is corrupt, expensive or remote – for the most part, they’re already convinced – but by offering something better.

“We will hold out the vision of a global Britain, interested and involved in the affairs of every continent, including Europe. Of Britain as a world leader in education and law and the audio-visual sector and hi-tech industries. Of a Britain that grows as part of a flourishing alliance of common-law English-speaking nations. Of a Britain that can do better than the genteel decline of the Eurozone.”

Laura Sandys, Chair of the European Movement and former Conservative MP for Thanet South, said:

“I welcome this challenge to all sides to push for a high participation referendum. This referendum is so much more important than our every 5 year general elections – general elections are reversible whereas this referendum is about the long term future of the UK. It would be a bad day for democracy if this big decision is not taken by the largest number of citizens possible and the outcome will lose the necessary credibility that Remain or Leave need to take this country forward.  We all have to make it our business to reach far and beyond the “usual” voters or political actors to build a truly national and diverse debate.” .

Omar Khan, Director of the Runnymede Trust, said:

“The referendum decision on EU membership will affect all of us. Yet Runnymede’s recent research with ethnic minority voters found that this big national moment has barely registered with many of the people we spoke to.

“A campaign that gets the debate out of Westminster and engages voters right across the country would be a boost to our democracy. With 8 million black and minority ethnic people now living in the UK – the combined total of Scotland and Wales – it’s important that people from all ethnic backgrounds get a say in this big choice that Britain will make.”

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