Richard North, 04/09/2004  

Nearly five months after Blair announced his intention to hold a referendum on the EU constitution, it seems that the self-styled "no" campaign is at last lumbering into action. The invisible "no" men have landed.

Their brilliant wheeze, it seems, is to make Peter Mandelson the target of their campaign, featuring his visage on a series of adverts attacking the constitution. According to The Daily Telegraph, they believe the unpopularity of Mandelson makes him a "perfect face" for its posters.

We will, of course, have to wait, quivering in anticipation, before we are permitted to see the brilliant words which garland Mandelson's lovely features.

As an indication of the tactical astuteness we can expect, however, we also learn that Neil O'Brien, Vote No's campaign director, has said that the organisation is taking action now because it believes that Blair could hold the referendum before the end of next year.

As the Telegraph rightly observes, Blair is expected to hold a general election next spring, but O'Brien thinks that, if Labour won (something of a foregone conclusion), it might go for an early referendum in order to exploit disarray among the Conservatives.

What O'Brien seems to be missing, though, is the minor fact of the British presidency of the EU, which starts on 1 July 2005. The sheer logistical demands of running the presidency, together with the humiliation if Blair lost during the term, would effectively preclude any possibility of a vote during that period.

Advertising at this stage, therefore, is premature and largely a waste of money, especially as the shape of the campaign has not emerged, and the key issues have yet to be defined.

Perhaps more disturbingly, the organisers, who also ran the business-funded "euro-no" campaign, seem to be largely a "one-trick horse", relying on well funded advertising campaigns as their primary tool. Thus they have recently appointed an advertising agency, WCRS, and are aiming to raise £1 million for campaigning before the end of this year.

What seems to be lacking is any sense that this needs to be a popular campaign, wholly different from the earlier anti-euro effort, in which people must be involved at all levels.

By no means all those with a view on the constitution are going to be content to rely on ex deus pronouncements from a self-appointed clique – however well-funded – to dictate the course of the battle. Unless the campaign is able to demonstrate a common touch, and a degree of inclusiveness so far lacking, other campaigners are going to be looking to their own devices.

Thus, while the "Vote-no" campaign might believe it has the field to itself, unless it can broaden its appeal, it might find that it becomes just one of the many campaign organisations that spring up over the next year or so, and not necessarily the main player.

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