Credit where it’s due, Nick Clegg’s “I’m In” campaign on Europe may finally see the Liberal Democrats campaigning on Europe during the course of a European parliamentary election.
That would be a welcome break with precedent. In previous euro elections, the party has acted as though it viewed the exercise as, at best, a chance to train its organisation in target seats by campaigning on purely local issues or, at worst, something it wished would go away.
National campaigns have been hesitant and embarrassed, a situation not helped by mistaken attempts to appeal to eurosceptics by making incautious promises about referendums.
How often does it need to be said that eurosceptics will vote UKIP or Tory? With at least two choices of the real thing on offer, they will not be impressed by the Liberal Democrats suddenly trying to pretend unconvincingly that they too are eurosceptics of some sort, obsessed by pointless referendums.
That tendency was at its worst in the last euro elections, with Clegg lending his weight to calls for a referendum on the spurious grounds that there hadn’t been one since 1975.
He now appears to have grasped something that has long been staring Liberal Democrat politicians in the face. Despite the weight of press hostility, emotional hysteria and nationalist bigotry on the eurosceptic side, there is a consistent one third or so of the population that is pro-European.
That one third is a minority but it is a considerably larger one than that which has ever voted Liberal Democrat. It is the obvious pool in which the party should be fishing.
The pro-European vote has effectively been abandoned in previous elections, perhaps on the assumption that it had nowhere much else to go. Not merely can that vote be awakened but it is essential that it is awakened ahead of any referendum eventually happening.
Through a combination of coalition legislation and political reality, the Liberal Democrats have ended up, possibly by accident, with a quite sound policy on Europe – that the party favours membership of the EU, is prepared to expound its benefits, and will tolerate a referendum only when there is something to have one about, by which it means some major proposed change in the UK’s relations with the EU.
This is where the party should have ended up years ago instead of wittering on about referendums in a vain attempt to placate people who will never vote Liberal Democrat. It gives next year’s euro candidates something to fight on and the party a reason to campaign. About time too.
This is the Commentary column from Liberator 362, which will be out next week. Also includes Felix Dodds and Simon Titley on How to be a Liberal minister, Greg Mulholland MP on why the pubcos should be tackled, and Rebecca Tinsley on how to give aid to Africa without lining the pockets of the corrupt... plus RB, reviews and Lord Bonkers.