OPINION: Blair's referendum rejection is simply bad PR

The government's failure to hold a referendum on the new European constitution is not just bad politics, it is bad PR. How on earth can New Labour argue the case for Europe when they are not even prepared to put their views to the ultimate test - the verdict of the people?

The Government's case against holding a referendum is as pathetic as Peter Mandelson claiming he has been stitched up by the media. Virtually every other country will ask their people to vote on the new European constitution, but we can't. Why? Because we live in a parliamentary democracy!

We don't do referendums. But what about the one we held on remaining in Europe? That was different, Peter Hain tells us. Yes, it was very different - we had a referendum then because the Labour Party was split from top to bottom over the Common Market, and Harold Wilson came up with the referendum idea to save his government. We are allowed referendums on whether or not we want mayors or about Sunday drinking in Wales, but apparently not on our place in Europe.

The decision not to hold a referendum isn't just because The Sun and the Daily Mail want one; after all, this government normally goes along with their agenda. No, the decision is because Tony Blair thinks he will lose. What he is actually doing is giving up the pro-European argument.

The PR battle has been lost before it even started, because the failure to ask the British people looks like he has no decent argument to put up against the anti-Europe xenophobes.

The Sun is able to proclaim 'The End of Our Nation' and the Daily Mail tells us that 'few areas of British life would remain untouched', because the Government has let the media make the entire running. A smart media operation in Downing Street would have advised Blair to announce a referendum months ago, but they were all too interested in war and took their eye off the domestic political agenda. Just as Brown has 'outmanoeuvred' Blair over the euro, the anti-Europe sections of the media have shafted him over the new European constitution.

Being on the back foot means the government isn't leading the debate on Europe, and we are reduced to Hain announcing that Britain was in charge because the word 'federal' had been dropped by Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

The Guardian, being pro-Europe, was more than willing to 'splash' this totally irrelevant fact. But Hain himself gave the game away by telling them 'The important thing is we got the term federal out'.

This does not mean, though, that we are moving inexorably towards a federal Europe, as some sections of the media and the Tories claim.

Talking of Tories, if I was running the PR campaign for a referendum, I would dearly wish that they kept out of it. Just when the case has been made, up pops Iain Duncan Smith on TV and you can hear people say 'well if he wants one, I don't'. The weakness of the Tories' case is obvious - they are the party who took the country into Europe without a referendum, so why have one now? The answer is just the same as the reason why Wilson had one - political opportunism.

The British electorate aren't as daft as some people think, though. They will distrust a referendum campaign being led by a newspaper owned by an Australian who has taken out US citizenship, and supported by a party that has destroyed itself over its obsession with Europe.

Tony Blair will once again come through the argument unscathed, but how much stronger would he be with the verdict of the British people behind him?

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