At the East Midlands Liberal Democrat conference in February, Party President Sal Brintons advice was not to make Europe a campaign issue. Subsequent events have proved her right. Ed Milliband ran it up the flagpole at the start of the short campaign by pointing out how destabilising a referendum would be for business, but but no-one saluted. Tony Blair mentioned it and had a similar non-response. On the doorsteps its barely figured. A handful of people have voiced strong anxiety over UKIP and been delighted when I say Im their opposite: as many have said they are voting UKIP and slammed the door.
Even in the torrent of lobbying emails parliamentary candidates receive from constituent via organisations such as 38degrees, the only thing even vaguely connecting to the EU has been TTIP, where the anxieties are far from reality.
Yet globalisation is moving quickly. The single market was formed to increase our competitiveness on the world stage (also the primary reason for TTIP), and the associated changes to the institutions of the European Union were to ensure democratic control directly through the European Parliament, and indirectly though national governments.
The campaign seems bewildering. Attempts by Labour and Conservatives to grab the focus remind me of a particularly grim local election when the candidates seemed to be competing to find broken paving stones. The big picture seems almost entirely absent.
The SNPs anti-austerity programme should make Scots relieved that being in the UK limits the damage they can do. UKIPs desire to leave the EU seems even more detached from reality, though barely an improvement on attempts by Labour and the Conservatives to say things to appeal to their core supporters while remaining vague on the actual proposals for spending or cutting which would allow people to have an informed opinion.
In an interconnected world there are big limits on what national governments can do. The non-engagement makes sense of disaffection from politics, but it is the opposite of healthy democracy. The Liberal Democrat manifesto feels like a pragmatic starting point for working with others, in coalition in the UK, and in co-operation in the EU, but it is hard to get that voice heard.
As a parliamentary candidate I feel a contradictory pull: to offer things that will benefit my constituency, and yet to ignore the fact that MPs work in co-operation with others. I am pressed to oppose HS2 (which goes through the constituency) despite its benefits to the British economy and improved connections with the rest of the EU. It seems an impossible leap from How do we stop it? to How can we join in sharing in its benefits?, and yet the former is fantasy, and the latter offers real possibilities.
As an internationalist party, can we shift the debate to what is good for us as citizens of an EU nation? Can we move the debate from a frightened escape from reality, to engage with our actual situation?