Outcome of the European Union Referendum - Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:53 pm on 6th July 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Labour 8:53 pm, 6th July 2016

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl and I hope to pick up on some of his points during my own remarks. I make no apologies for talking about the referendum campaign itself and sharing my own experience of it. This is not because I want to cry over spilt milk or wallow in despair but because there are lessons to be learned from this campaign for any future referendums that we may hold and for our democracy as a whole.

I canvassed and leafleted for remain in my home area of the north-east and spent that time between where I live in rural Northumberland and my old parliamentary patch of Gateshead. I also spoke at meetings throughout the area, from Tyneside to Teesside. Sadly, apart from the city of Newcastle upon Tyne those areas all voted leave in the referendum. In the course of the campaign, I certainly encountered some of the anger and alienation that others have described in this debate, as well as a great deal of confusion about some of the issues involved. While I accept the result I do not believe that it is wrong to be very concerned about the poor quality of the information disseminated throughout the campaign. I did not like some of the claims on the remain side, particularly some of what I felt were overprecise economic predictions, knowing how economic predictions can be swept away by unforeseen events. However, I have to say that many of the leave campaign claims were, at best, half-truths and, at worst, blatant lies.

The prize for the most misleading leaflet in the campaign must surely go to the rather innocent looking leave leaflet entitled, “Not sure which way to vote on the EU?”. This was a clever leaflet, with this opening question and its statement on the front that there were risks in voting either way, but when you opened it up it was revealed in its true colours, with its statement that Turkey is set to join the EU, with its 72 million people and borders with Syria and Iraq, and, of course, the claim about the £350 million a week being spent on health. Indeed, much to my sadness there was a quotation in the leaflet from my erstwhile honourable and good friend, Gisela Stuart:

“The rights we have won for British workers came from our Parliament, not the EU”.

This was a perfect example of a half-truth: to a certain extent it is true, in that Governments had agreed such legislation and such initiatives inside the European Union and given legislative effect to them in our own legal system. Indeed, that fact contradicts the myth that the Commission imposes such legislation on us without our participation. This half-truth, of course, also conveys, utterly falsely, that the EU was not interested in, and not a prime mover in, promoting the rights of people at work. This is an absolute travesty of the reality. Indeed, as a Member of the European Parliament from 1979 to 1989 I was involved on behalf of constituents in cases going to the European Court of Justice to ensure that we delivered to employees in practice the rights that we had agreed to and introduced through our own legislation.

Finally, this leaflet claimed that major employers such as Nissan, Airbus, Unilever and others had stated that they would stay in the UK whatever the result of the referendum and reproduced all the logos of these firms in the leaflet, giving the impression that they endorsed it. Not surprisingly, Nissan, for one, has begun legal proceedings against the leave campaign as a result.

Noble Lords may say that this was just one leaflet, but it was quoted to me several times on the doorstep, particularly the Nissan section, being in the north-east, and the section about Turkey’s membership. When I pointed out that all countries of the existing 28 members, big and small, have a veto on any new country’s application to join I was often looked at with varying degrees of incredulity. Like my noble friend Lord Cashman in his terrific speech yesterday, I did not recognise the description of European institutions or European decision-making portrayed by leave in the hysteria about faceless, dictatorial EU bureaucrats. I say to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, that European Commissioners attend the meetings of the European Parliament and are regularly questioned by them. Indeed, European Commissioners have been interviewed and questioned by committees of this House. The thought that they are faceless seems slightly odd. I have never thought of the former European Commissioners who sit in your Lordships’ House—the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, who is in his place, or my noble friends Lord Kinnock, Lord Mandelson, Lord Richard, or Lord Clinton-Davis—as either faceless or dictatorial. In fact, I would have liked their wise words and experience to have been given more publicity during this campaign.

The BBC, I am glad to say, had its EU Reality Check website, but many people conducting interviews during the course of the referendum campaign did not seem briefed on the facts and many wild allegations therefore went unchallenged. Surely, given that we knew the date of the referendum quite a few months in advance, media interviewers should have been better prepared and better briefed about the issues to raise.

Reference has been made to the petition with 4 million signatures calling for a second referendum, but another petition is interesting: it calls for truthful politics and the creation of an independent office to monitor political campaigns. This petition shows the frustration that so many people felt about the conduct of the campaign.

Finally, the most cheering political event for me recently was the election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London. I salute Londoners for voting remain in such numbers, but while I accept that London and the devolved authorities should be closely involved in negotiations, I also plead for those areas such as mine which voted leave not to be forgotten. It would be the cruellest of ironies if those who voted leave and were therefore on the winning side should lose out even further.

The Lord Privy Seal said that she and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, are in listening mode. Of course I welcome that, but we need not just to be listened to, we need answers, we need reassurances and we need to find a credible way forward in the interests of our country as a whole.