Another Tory flagship manifesto commitment came before MPs today, as the Bill which sets the framework for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union received its second reading. To put it mildly, the Bill gets the referendum off to a bad start...
This vote is without doubt of great importance to the future of the country and its role in the world. It will also have profound ramifications on individual peoples’ lives.
In setting the terms for this referendum the government could – and should – have allowed as broad a spectrum of people as possible to have their say.
But the Bill debated today fell far short of the mark in terms of inclusiveness. The franchise for the referendum has been based on a view of the UK’s place in the world which is, in my view, completely outdated. It allows citizens of the UK, Ireland, and Commonwealth countries, who are resident in the UK, to vote. But EU nationals would be denied the same opportunity.
It’s just plain weird that the Maltese and the Cypriots can vote because of their status as Commonwealth citizens, and the Irish can vote because they’re Irish, but the Italian residents of Clerkenwell cannot.
As the MP for Islington South and Finsbury, I have the privilege of representing one of the most diverse constituencies in the UK. More than a third of my constituents were born overseas, and in Islington there are more than 19,000 people who were born in EU countries outside the UK and Ireland.
My European constituents are among the most politically engaged people I represent. A few years ago I and a group of local Labour activists met a rival group of canvassers while we were out knocking on doors. I was shocked – at first I thought the Lib Dems had come back from the dead! – but it turned out that they were French Socialists, campaigning for their party’s candidate in the Presidential election at the same time we were campaigning for London’s mayoral election.
Overall there are more than two and a half million EU nationals living, working, studying and paying taxes in the UK. The Tories’ framework for this referendum disenfranchises each and every one of them, and it does so on a question of fundamental importance to the future, not only of the UK within Europe, but of Europe as a whole.
EU nationals living in the UK have been permitted to vote in local elections, and in elections to the European Parliament, for decades. In fact more than 8,000 EU nationals from outside the UK and Ireland are on the voters’ register in my constituency so they can do just that. It is, to say the least, inconsistent that while we would acknowledge a role for EU nationals in deciding who should represent the UK in Brussels, we would deny those same voters the opportunity to have a say on the much more fundamental question of whether the UK should even be a part of the European Union.
A similar case holds for youngsters aged between 16 and 18, who remain disenfranchised by the Tories’ framework for the referendum. The government considers them old enough to leave school, get a job, pay taxes, marry, start a family, and even join the army. But it does not consider them old enough to have a say on the most important constitutional question to face a nationwide vote in a generation.
Allowing young people to vote for the first time while they are still at school would allow them to engage with the political process, as well as the relevant issues, with the support of teachers to help them make informed choices. All the evidence shows that establishing the habit of voting as early as possible is a vital tool in making sure that it’s maintained throughout people’s lives.
The government’s Bill gets off to a bad start by taking a regressive view of the franchise, but this is by no means its only flaw. Ministers have – very quietly and without explanation as far as I can tell – slipped in a clause which exempts the EU referendum from long-standing legal restrictions on central and local governments’ involvement in campaign activity.
Since 2000, government ministers and their departments have been prohibited from publishing any promotional material urging a particular outcome – one way or the other – within 28 days of polling day. The same restrictions apply to local authorities.
But the Bill debated today takes the extraordinary and unprecedented step of stating that this prohibition “does not apply in relation to this referendum”.
How does this Bill not open the floodgates to the unlimited spending of taxpayers’ money on promoting the government’s favoured outcome at other times, and in other elections? It could conceivably create a situation where different layers of government, of sharply differing views depending on political control, end up fighting an arms race in funding opposing sides of the campaign. From a government that has repeatedly stated its aspiration “to cut the cost of politics”, this is, to say the least, an ironic turn of events.
The EU Referendum Bill is being rushed through to meet an arbitrary deadline for the vote – a deadline that has been imposed by the Prime Minister for entirely political reasons.
It disenfranchises those who have the most at stake in this debate. And it sets a disturbing precedent for governments to interfere in the conduct of future referendums, at taxpayers’ expense.
If we must have a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union, the least we can do is to make sure that it’s conducted to a higher standard than this Bill provides for. It’s time for the government to go back to the drawing board on the EU referendum.