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Sunday, 12 June 2016 20:53

Brexit diary Part 1: "We just need to get the turnout"

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Photo Courtesy of Stronger in Manchester 

Our former editor Chris Ruff gives an enriching insight into the experience of those volunteering for Britain Stronger In Europe. 

At my first campaign stop, decent-length conversations were at a premium. Somewhat awkwardly positioned outside Manchester Victoria train station, with staff having kicked us out, we were at the mercy of the biting winds characteristic of that part of the world. Yes, even in May.

Our intended targets were obviously keen not to stick around. They clearly had nice warm homes to get to and a bunch of overly enthusiastic people with suspicious stickers and colourful flyers weren’t going to get between them and their sofas.

A couple of people did fling us a cursory remark as they barged through our pro-EU defences. Usually those on the negative side of the debate, unfortunately. “Get the f*ck out of Ireland first!” was quickly followed by: “All my friends are voting out!” As I pondered on the plausibility of the second argument and the sanity of the first, it occurred to me that perhaps Europhiles were a quieter, more reserved breed. Indeed, this was confirmed when a slightly balding man approached me sheepishly and practically whispered in my ear: “Keep it up, we just need to get the turnout really”. This lack of brashness might explain the increasingly worrying opinion polls that, as I write in early June, show a two to five point lead for the Leavers.

Commuters have the annoying habit of - by their very nature - being a travelling folk. When they cease to move, they stop being a commuter and become a sedentary worker or home-dweller, depending on the direction of travel. In this case, the commuters in question were rushing to catch their trains northwards to all parts of Greater Manchester and Lancashire.

One of the novel characteristics in this campaign is the sensation of lining up alongside traditional adversaries. In this sense, the whole thing had the feel of an international football fixture, where Manchester United and Liverpool players put aside their daily rivalries to concentrate on the national good. To be clear, I’m not calling myself Labour’s Wayne Rooney, probably a Chris Smalling if anything, tall and understated but with an unfortunate habit of scoring own goals.

The commuter focus was a Tory idea, according to my organiser for the day, “because they tend to respond well to the economic arguments and have time to read on the train”. Can’t fault that logic, I thought.

Although Labour does in fact have its own referendum brand (more on that in a later edition), this day’s exercise was performed under the guise of ‘Stronger In’. This campaign, led by David Cameron, has many of the hallmarks of a Conservative campaign. I glanced down at the leaflet I was attempting to foist on passers-by. An array of heavyweight public figures were in little blue circles with speech bubbles predicting economic misery if we left the EU. I wonder if the message could have been honed a little better, considering the audience: Manchester City Council had been a de facto Labour one party state from 2014 to 2016, when a sneaky Liberal Democrat got in.

In what would be a recurring theme, our attempts at being considered a serious proposition were continually obstructed by the local branch of the Jehovah’s witnesses. Thankfully, they are forbidden to evangelise verbally, so our message (“Here’s some information on the referendum. Vote Remain”, although necessarily delivered so quickly that it actually sounded more like “Heresinfofrendumvtrmain”) was clearly heard. However, to counteract this obvious impediment they tend to position themselves cannily. The station entrance provided the perfect bottleneck. Even if the poor members of the public managed to avoid the doom-laden prophecies of eternal hell-fire from our co-leafleters, they were more often than not caught up by similar tales of future woe, this time delivered by Richard Branson.

This jostling for position meant actual interactions were few and far between. Nevertheless, I at least managed to snatch a couple of good chats with people genuinely interested in hearing the arguments.

The breadth of views on the subject was something I had not expected. The final person I spoke to, an NHS worker originally from Sunderland, came at me with a standard left-wing critique - the apparent mismatch between Labour’s domestic position on austerity and the economic pain currently being inflicted on Southern Europe.

Although I had a decent-enough answer to that one - 1. We’re not in the eurozone, and 2. Is it really going to get better if we leave? Let’s stay and try to make it better - he then threw me a curveball by saying he was also opposed to any government intervention in the economy. Despite my initial shock at meeting what must be the only libertarian NHS worker from the North-East in existence (if not then they must be an endangered species...), I think I handled the rest of his questions not too badly.

The result: “I’m not entirely convinced, but I think I’m probably going to vote to stay in”. I’m definitely claiming that one as a win.

Last modified on Tuesday, 21 June 2016 20:26

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