Persuading the British people to vote with head and heart to stay in the EU

  • In a world where the more networked our country is, the more we can exercise influence to improve the lives of people and build a fairer, more equal and prosperous world.

  • Launch of Universities for Europe
    University College London, Gower Street, London

    Chuka Umunna MP

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I am delighted to be speaking at this launch – thank you for asking me to speak.

This is not an issue that cuts neatly along ideological lines.  In fact it is an issue that cuts across ideological and party divides.

I recall having dinner with the late Bob Crow and Nigel Farage – yup…me, Nigel and Bob – before the three of us appeared on an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions in November 2010.  It was one of the more surreal dinners I have had.  What was interesting is that both came from opposite ends of the political spectrum but were united on one thing – they shared a mutual dislike of the EU.

Given the importance of this issue to the national interest and the future of our country, we cannot allow tribalism and party politics to stand in the way of people like Damian and I – on the other side to Bob and Nigel – from making the most effective case we can together for Britain’s membership.

So I am pleased to be making the case for the EU alongside Damian today.

The HE sector

This sector’s voice is a crucial one.  According to the poll conducted for the group British Future by Survation last month, most people have not made a decision about where they stand on Britain’s EU membership at present.

But what that poll did make clear was that voices outside of politics were far more trusted advocates in persuading the British people than we politicians.  Alongside economists, small business owners, farmers and fishermen, the poll found that university vice chancellors are the voices outside of politics who are most trusted when they talk about whether Britain should stay in the EU.  So it is fitting that you have launched this Universities for Europe campaign.

EU membership matters for the sector:  with EU R&D funding of £727million a year for UK institutions; a 15.5% boost to the UK’s science and research budget; British businesses often receiving the most funding of any organisations in the UK; increased innovation in the UK; cross border collaboration on projects enabling countries to achieve more for less compared to projects restricted to the national level; and, so on.  The out campaign will argue that if we exited we would be able to use the monies that would otherwise go to the EU to spend on R&D.  But as Dame Julia has said, knowledge and scholarship are borderless.  Research cooperation transcends national boundaries and surely we want the brightest and the best from the EU bringing their ideas and developing them in the UK.

Full disclosure: I myself benefitted from the EU’s Erasmus Socrates student exchange programme when I read English Law and French Law at Manchester University, spending a year studying French Law at the University of Burgundy in France.  That experience broadened my own horizons and gave me a much better understanding of a different legal system which informed my practice when I qualified as a solicitor later on.

Like all Manchester alumni, I was proud that it was the team at Manchester University that discovered graphene, the incredibly flexible material which is 200 times stronger than steel.  What many don’t know is that the team received start-up funding for their work from the EU in 2007 – three years before they were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work.  And the EU went on to invest £23 million helping establish the National Graphene Institute in Manchester from 2013.

We have already heard from Dame Julia why continued EU membership is so important for all our universities.  So, I want to use this opportunity to offer some thoughts on how the broader “Yes” campaign – of which our universities are a very important part – can win this referendum.

The broader campaign

First, given that we know voices outside of politics are more persuasive than voices in politics, I think it would make sense for a non-politician to head up the umbrella campaign, to the extent it has a nominal head.

In truth, the campaign will need a cast of voices that look and sound like modern Britain, taking in all of our different regions, our different diverse communities, women and men, the young and the old.  This is not a campaign that can be won by captains of industry or politicians at lecterns lecturing Britain – it needs to be a grassroots bottom up campaign.  We need a broad range of faces of the campaign who are authentic, credible and win people over to the cause – not only universities and business but environmental organisations, consumer groups, our creative industries and others.  The potential breadth of the “Yes” campaign is a big strength that must be harnessed.

Second, we must make the argument from a local as well as a national perspective.  The business case for the EU is clearly a strong one.  But I think general managers of local plants, factories, workplaces, branch offices, will be more effective advocates than the CEO adding his or her name to a letter from the great and the good in the FT or the Times.  They should be authorised and encouraged to speak out and explain the benefits for their local area.  If the person who gives you your pay slip and rosters your hours every month tells you what impact leaving would have on your immediate place of work, you will sit up and listen.

Third, although we will necessarily need to point to the risks of being out, we must make a positive, optimistic case for staying in.  That is one lesson we should heed from Scotland.  Although unsuccessful, the “yes” campaign there owned the positive story in that campaign which gave the campaign a certain energy.  It helps that we are “yes” to stay in at this referendum, but we must foster the same sense of positivity around our continued membership.

I’ve always thought the Eurosceptics tell a very defeatist and negative story about Britain– it is a narrative that suggests that whenever we want to get things done, we are run over by recalcitrant fellow EU members constantly standing in our way.  The truth is very different and we must say so – the UK has been regarded as a shrewd operator in the EU.  Until the current Prime Minister took office, we have traditionally been very effective at marshalling a majority behind the UK position.

Far from being run over, being effective and leading players in Europe, as President Obama indicated last week, has helped the UK keep our seat at the international leaders’ table – this is fundamental to our national interest.

My fourth reflection is that we must not allow the referendum to be simply framed around issues of trade and immigration.  The trade argument is a strong one given most of our exports go to the EU and we currently have the biggest current account deficit since 1830 – we must continue to make the trade case as we can’t turn our back on our largest export market.  And, of course, on the other side the “no” campaign will want immigration to be central given its toxicity as an issue.

But there is a much broader argument to be made for the EU, from tackling challenges such as climate change to cross border crime, that must be part of our argument too.  In particular we must remind people of the peace part of the peace and prosperity that comes with the EU – we cannot allow the no campaign to assert that the relative peace we, in the main, have enjoyed following the EU’s establishment was or is a given.  The role the EU plays in making the Europe and the world a safer place could be further reinforced if the Iran nuclear agreement proves to be successful – the European Union’s High Representatives Baroness Ashton and Federica Mogherini are recognised to have a played an important role in facilitating agreement.

We are much stronger, much more powerful working together, with like-minded countries to build a safer world.  The no campaign harks back to a world that no longer exists and would make Britain weaker, less influential.

Progressive reform case

Finally, we cannot be the ones arguing for the status quo.  The EU isn’t in stasis – it is a structure that needs to adapt and change to reflect the needs of today and tomorrow, and change in a way that systems in countries do too.

So we must fight to stay in a changed and reformed EU and, for us on the centre left, we must paint a picture of what a more progressive EU looks like.

Any reform agenda will clearly need to address the way in which free movement works in an EU which looks very different now to when it was created.  Clearly you can’t have free movement of goods and services without the free movement of people b ut the way in which our benefits system operates and employment rules are enforced in this context must be addressed.

I have made it very clear to business leaders that if they see renegotiation as a vehicle through which to roll back the EU’s social agenda on working hours, agency workers, voice in the work place, and so on then we will struggle to convince working people of the case to stay in.  The CBI tells us that staying in is in their members commercial interests so I trust they and others will tell No 10 that that is their priority here, not further liberalising our labour market.

Whilst I have little sympathy for the governing Syriza party in Greece, I have great sympathy for the Greek people.  The troubles of the Eurozone are many and varied but part of the problem has been the excessive austerity that Germany has demanded leading to the shrinkage of several economies with great human cost.  Progressives, like my party, must be clear we oppose this excessive austerity and remind people that the EU is not some poster boy for austerity.  There are other powerful social democratic voices in Europe – the French and Italian governments in particular – who take a different approach.

And, as we seek to not only work with multinational companies to advance growth and progress, but ensure they pay their fair share and abide by the rules, working across borders – as they do – with our EU partners is a no brainer.  But we must spell out how the EU already does so and can more effectively do so in the future to ensure globalisation doesn’t exacerbate inequalities but more can share in the benefits it brings.


So, to conclude, I never got to vote in the last EU referendum in 1975 because I was not yet alive.  I passionately believe that in a different world the more networked our country is, the more we can exercise influence to improve the lives of British people and build a fairer, more equal and prosperous world.  And making this argument with passion and emotion is a must because passion and emotion so often trumps facts.  Because when the vote does come, it is crucial we persuade our fellow countrymen with head and heart to vote “yes” to stay in again.

Thank you.