Earlier this month, Thurrock was chosen as the test-bed for a new kind of campaign, with activists promoting a local vote on whether Britain should have a referendum on EU-membership. The non-binding contest, which will be supervised by Electoral Reform Services, is designed to pile pressure on the government. In his first campaign diary post, Christopher Bruni-Lowe tells us why Thurrock was chosen and what campaigners are trying to achieve.
By Christopher Bruni-Lowe
Knocking on doors this week in Thurrock the common response we receive from those we've been canvassing is 'well done Thurrock'. Reactions to the announcement of the referendum being held in their constituency have been overwhelmingly positive - many are seeing this as a unique opportunity to lead the way. They're right. All eyes will be on Thurrock on April 5th. If the result is as hoped, and a majority vote to back holding a national referendum on our EU membership, the pro-referendum movement will for the first time have some serious electoral credibility, albeit at the constituency level.
It is at that constituency level where real progress begins to take shape. The aim of the People's Pledge is to shift the tectonic plates beneath resistant party leaders and to influence change from the grassroots up. These local votes, integral to the 1: 10: 100 ground campaign strategy announced two weeks ago, are of course not legally binding, but the fact that thousands will likely participate will be hard to ignore.
A variety of different factors went into selecting Thurrock for the 'one'. Sitting MP Jackie Doyle Price voted against holding an EU referendum back in October. She also has a majority of 92, one of the smallest in the country, which we hope might send a message to her that backing the wishes of her constituents and supporting a referendum should be an obvious choice. Polly Billington, former special adviser to Ed Miliband, was recently selected Labour candidate for Thurrock. We would hope she also might see an opportunity to come out on the side of local sentiment and throw her weight behind the idea of a referendum, perhaps even before the incumbent Tory MP. As we have always maintained, the more candidates in a constituency backing a referendum at the next general election the better.
When we announced that there were 13 seats under consideration for the first local referendum, the response across all 13 areas was one of excited (and from some, nervous) anticipation. Local media, local chairs from all political parties and MPs got in touch to find out whether their area was likely to be selected. So there was muted disappointment amongst some – and relief from others – when Thurrock was chosen. But what of the other 12 seats that were not successful this time? They will have the opportunity again when our campaign runs another ten referendums later this year. With a supporter base of just under 100,000 it was inevitable some would be disappointed. Although time and money means we cannot satisfy everyone, we will be making an announcement later this week that should provide renewed excitement a-plenty for supporters and MPs alike.
I intend this campaign diary to be less of a 'how to' and more of a record of events from Thurrock. You will not find endless arguments about the need for a referendum; our case
on the People's Pledge website is there for anyone who wants to read it. I hope this diary will instead provide broader analysis of political and local campaigning - in equal measures. The success of the pledge in Thurrock is imperative to furthering the cause of an EU referendum. The strength of our campaign team and the grassroots pledge concept has given the fight for an EU referendum serious traction for the first time in years. The initial days of the campaign have gone well. We have opened a local campaign HQ, held our first supporters meeting and completed a full week of canvassing.
There is much more to be done between now and April 5th, the countdown ticker on our homepage an ever-present reminder of the task we have undertaken. Two weeks ago we had no canvassing data, no local base, few listed supporters, the MP and rival candidate were against an EU referendum and we were unsure of how we would be received locally. Already so much progress has been made. Over the next six weeks Thurrock will feel like a supercharged by-election - and on such a single issue campaign basis - a real first for Britain. It is important to remember where we started from as I believe by April 5th we will have come a long way - hopefully in the process taking the fight for an EU referendum with us.
Next time: The campaign and the local media
Christopher Bruni-Lowe is campaign director and co-founder of the People's Pledge.