Sunday, 29 May 2016

The political class has turned the EU referendum into their own petty squabble.

Two months in and the campaign over whether or not the UK stays in the European Union is starting to look like a sorry thing. The public are rapidly moving from confusion, to annoyance with the incessant squabbling, to indifference.

There is just over a month more to go before polling day and no sign of things getting better any time soon.

At the end of last week the Treasury Select committee criticized both sides for using 'misleading' figures and 'implausible assumptions' in their campaign material.

The committee was critical of the statement made for the 'Remain' campaign by chancellor George Osborne that families would be on average £4,300 a year worse off were we to leave the EU, calling it 'mistaken' and saying he had 'probably confused voters.' Adding that 'the main Treasury analysis found the impact on family incomes would be considerably less;' can't help thinking Curious George ought have known that.

They also took the 'Leave' campaign to task for their repeated claim that leaving the EU would save Britain £350 million a week, saying it was 'deeply problematic.' Not least because it does not take into account the 'rebate' we receive on our contribution to the EU and the investment Europe ploughs into the country.

Committee chair Andrew Tyrie writing in the report says the claims 'sits very awkwardly' with promises both campaigns had given to the Electoral Commission to 'work in a spirit that reflects the gravity of the choice facing the British people.'

Speaking to the BBC's The World at One programme on Friday he said that what was needed was an 'end to the arms race of ever more lurid claims and counter-claims made by both sides.' Good luck with that as the teenagers like to say.

He added that unsubstantiated claims made by both sides were 'confusing the public' and 'impoverishing political debate', leaving voters 'thoroughly fed up.'

The British public has never shown much enthusiasm for participating in referendums; you could forgive them for ignoring this one entirely, even though doing so is potentially disastrous.

Both sided have managed to turn the whole exercise into a dispiriting circus, one where Ringmaster David Cameron goes through endless photo-ops wearing the pained expression of a schoolmaster taking the dimmer pupils in his house through their Latin prep, statistics get thrown around like custard pies and every five minutes someone invokes Hitler as the bogeyman of choice for unthinking commentators. Whenever it looks like a serious debate might be in danger of breaking out Boris Johnson blunders on stage and starts carrying on like the Cookie Monster on acid.

It would be laughable; if it weren't so serious. If the referendum on Scottish independence in late 2014 hadn't shown us how different things could be.

A referendum doesn't have to be a nasty squabble between the boys and girls in the Westminster bubble, it can be a positive conversation about how we see our shared future that engages voters and reinvigorates a jaded political process.

Whether the mess we're in is the result of accident or design on their part is debatable, what it clearly shows is that the political class of 2016 is worryingly incapable of talking to the electorate. Instead they focus on their own petty squabbles and point scoring all the while alienating the voters to whom they owe their comfortable lifestyle.

Europe matters,particularly to places like Stoke-on-Trent, my Midlands home town, a place that has been battered by three decades of economic change and either ignored or taken for granted by successive governments. Its regeneration, slow and faltering though it may have been so far, has depended on EU funding, that is why I will be voting for us to stay in the EU on 23rd June.

Although I find some of their 'little England' posturing absurd I recognise and respect in the more reasonable wing of the campaign for us to leave a belief that democracy is something we should all value and work to protect.

The 2015 general election taught us that it is never a wise idea to try and second guess the electorate, I am though willing to make one prediction, if we let the campaign continue to degenerate into a childish squabble then whoever wins; democracy will be the loser.

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