“Young people get it, being part of something bigger”: Alan Johnson addresses EU referendum

Chair of the ‘Labour In for Britain’ campaign, Alan Johnson MP, held a question and answer session today on University Park Campus to address the EU referendum.

The hour-long event was organised by the University of Nottingham’s Students’ Union (SU) and Nottingham Students for Europe and was attended by at least 40 students and staff members.

On the panel were ‘Labour In for Britain’ campaign leaders Alan Johnson and Gloria del Piero, and eventually Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North, who arrived 15 minutes late.

The panel was flanked by posters produced by the SU, reminding students that the final date to register to vote is 7th June 2016.

“He acknowledged that 93% of 232 Labour MPs signed up to the ‘Labour In for Britain’ campaign”

Prior to the Q&A session, Johnson gave a short speech in which he claimed that there was “no more important issue than the referendum on June 23rd” and joked that while he would “accept an argument that the Labour Party is not united on everything”, it is united in favour of remaining in the EU.

To support his claim, he acknowledged that 93% of 232 Labour MPs signed up to the ‘Labour In for Britain’ campaign, including the “whole of the front bench” and “the majority of Unions”.

Alan also highlighted that the world was “less globally interdependent” in 1975 when the Common Market referendum took place, and praised the “worthy principles in which the EU came into being – to stop wars between European countries”.

“The Prime Minister was right to remind people that conflict was the backdrop to their parents’ and grandparents’ lives – slaughter, carnage,” he claimed. “Those principles of internationalism and solidarity are why I am part of this campaign”.

“Being part of our continent – a functional, influential part of our continent – is essential to our future”

He finished his speech with a quote he had read in The Times: “To stand alone in 1940 against enemies was heroic. To stand alone in 2016 amongst friends would be absurd”, adding his own comment that “being part of our continent – a functioning, influential part of our continent – is essential to our future, whether for our prosperity, security, or for Britain’s voice in the world”.

“Going off into isolation would be ridiculous”, he argued, before ultimately reminding students that the EU referendum is “such a profound decision affecting your future – you’re going to be living with it longer than people of my age”.

Gloria del Piero also emphasised the effect of the EU referendum on students, stating that “effects will be felt longer and harder by your age group” and that although opinion polls for 18-25 year olds show that most want to remain in the EU, it “is not enough to just answer a survey”.

She recognised that the last election in which young people turned out to vote in the same number as older people was 1964 and urged students not to “let other people determine [their] future for [them]”.

“As a student, it is important for me to stay in Europe for the opportunities for travel, to work and study abroad”

Gloria’s main argument for remaining in the EU was centred on “workers’ rights”, explaining that she did not want to lose the legal right to paid holiday or maternity pay by comparing current rights in Britain with those of the US.

Co-head of Nottingham Students for Europe, Amy Longland, also spoke: “As a student, it is important for me to stay in Europe for the opportunities for travel, to work and study abroad, research, and funding”.

She claimed that “students appreciate the fact that we’re a part of this community of different cultures and languages”, and cited the Erasmus scheme as an example.

Questions were then taken from the floor.

“We’d like to replicate the same-sex marriage campaign in Ireland – ‘Ring Your Granny'”

How will you get people interested in voting that don’t have access to academic networks?

Gloria: There is a bus going round the country before the referendum date. It’s about talking through the media and social media. You’re right that it’s easier to come to universities and talk to students but we also need to go to work places. Politics isn’t just talking to a particular demographic.

Alan: Unions are concentrating on apprentices. There’s Unite at Rolls Royce and Nissan, for example, and they’re doing a big job with younger members. We need to get you [staff] talking to people too. We’d like to attempt to replicate the same-sex marriage campaign in Ireland – Ring Your Granny. They got young people to tell parents and grandparents who are socially Conservative why they felt it was important for them. We’d like to run a little version of that. If you believe in Brexit, don’t bother because your granny might agree with you! But if not, tell your granny.

Graham: From a Nottingham perspective, there are probably three reasons why the City Council is very supportive of remaining. The first is jobs – an enormous number of jobs in this city depend on EU trade, for example, Boots. Boots is no longer a Nottingham company, it is based in the States and Switzerland. So we need access to markets. The second reason is grants. The current government has discriminated against poor local authorities. There is an inverse correlation between how poor an area is and how much grant it has lost. This city is probably the 20th poorest and Europe is the only organisation putting money into the city on the basis of need. The third is training. The government is cutting FE more than HE.

“As Obama said, “being a part of something bigger doesn’t moderate our voice, it magnifies it””

Q: I’m undecided at the moment. What I’ve found off putting from the leave side is talk of Imperial ambitions, trading places without EU constraints. Hearing from the remain side, there is talk of our place in the world, our influence, NATO and influence in Eastern Europe. Do the campaigns seem to becoming similar?

Alan: You’re the people we’re after, we’re chasing down the ‘undecideds’. As Obama said, “being a part of something bigger doesn’t moderate our voice, it magnifies it”. We also know that the only country in the world that hasn’t given up any of its sovereignty is North Korea.

Europe is not something that is always done to us. The leave side suggests that there’s Britain and then there’s Europe – we’re part of Europe. We are respected in Europe, we carry a significant voice. We carry the second biggest vote around the table. If we use our voice to influence rather than to demand things and then threaten to walk, we’d have a totally different relationship. The leave side doesn’t know what leaving looks like. I think the idea of losing 6% of GDP is a slam dunk kind of argument. You can’t just shrug things away with a sense of optimism by saying it will be fine. I don’t think it will be. I think when people go into the ballot box on June 23rd, they will want more than false optimism.

“I could make a good argument that Brussels is more democratic than Westminster”

Q: What is less instinctively apparent is, is it good for democracy, does it put power in the hands of people to have laws instigated by 28 commissions who we don’t elect? What is your impression as a former Minister of the ability of the people we elect to make decisions?

Alan: There’s a very important question on sovereignty because Michael Gove said that when he was a minister, hardly a day went by without a civil servant saying “you can’t do that because of European rules”. I can’t remember a day in any of my roles when any civil servant said to me “you can’t do that because of European rules”. Most of our laws about education – whether we charge fees for HE or not – they’re made by UK parliaments. I could make a good argument that Brussels is more democratic than Westminster. I’m not going to, especially not on camera, but I could. In terms of an hereditary monarchy, for example.

Questions were also posed about ‘Project Fear’ and the need to make a case for immigration within the campaign. Alan emphasised that “no EU country has as many of its citizens living in and working in other developed countries as Britain” and the point that it is a “two way process” needed to be made.

“All of this has to be explained against arguments of fear of others which we sometimes get from the leave side”

He also spoke of fears of exploitation and fairness. “We make the point that the ‘Agency Workers’ Directive’ was one of the biggest protections we could give to stop employers undercutting the local workforce with a workforce brought in for lower wages”.

“There has always been exploitation. If we walk away from Europe, we lose the protection of the ‘Agency Workers’ Directive’, the protection of people on temporary contracts having to get the same of regular staff, and the guarantee of four weeks of paid holiday”, he outlined. “All of this has to be explained against arguments of fear of others which we sometimes get from the leave side”.

“And the other thing, just to mention Turkey – we have a veto whilst we’re a member of the EU over any country that joins. If the fear is that 75 million Turks will come in, if you believe that kind of rubbish, if we leave – where is our veto? And those 75 million Turks will still be massing at the border but we won’t have the protection of UK border force in Calais, which is an incredible deal. We haven’t given up control of our borders – France gave it up to us”, he stated.

“If that goes because we’re outside of the EU and the Turkish question is your problem, you’re going to have a bigger problem outside the EU”.

Tamsin Parnell

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