This week saw the European Union debate shift up a gear in Oxford. On the evening of last Friday, Oxford Students For Europe launched a campaign designed to persuade and mobilise students to vote ‘Yes’ to staying in the EU in the upcoming referendum. The event, held at Christ Church, attracted a turnout of around 100 people and involved speeches from Labour MEP Anneliese Dodds and the Liberal Democrat Lord Jonathan Marks. A set of committee elections was held on Tuesday of this week. Nominations were open for fewer than four days.
The news follows speculation that David Cameron might hold the referendum as early as June 2016. Two co-chairs, who will direct the campaign, were elected by Single Transferable Vote on Tuesday night. Eilidh Macfarlane and David Klemperer ran on a joint ticket and were elected with 70 first preference votes to their rivals’ 45. Macfarlane, a student at Trinity College, is the former co-chair of the Oxford University Liberal Democrats and former organiser of a Better Together campaign in the Scottish Highlands. Klemperer, of St. John’s, is a former co-chair of Oxford University Labour Club.
Interestingly, the OSFE’s constitution was formulated by a provisional committee which included Macfarlane, Klemperer, and Henry Samuels, the current Oxford University Liberal Democrats Treasurer. Samuels, who acted as Returning Officer, presided over the election which saw his fellow provisional committee members take control.
Despite the prominence of Liberal Democrats in the campaign so far, OSFE has emphasised its bipartisan nature. Samuels urged that the Oxford ‘In’ campaign needed to be “both popular and cross-party” to have the best chance of success, explaining this was why it was made “a constitutional requirement that the two co-chairs of the campaign not be from the same political party.”
Macfarlane and Klemperer told Cherwell, in their first comments since assuming the leadership, that OSFE “is already a truly cross-party organisation with members of all parties and none competing in our elections. This range is reflected in our newly-elected committee: as well as ourselves as a Labour and Lib Dem co-chair team, Conservative members topped the ballot for committee.”
The OSFE co-chairs stressed that their aim is to engage “particularly with people who have not been involved in political campaigns before but believe that the UK is made stronger by its membership of the EU.”
Although remaining unaffiliated with the national campaign Students For Europe, OSFE has said it plans to work closely with both the Stronger In campaign and the European Movement “in order to play a part in the national campaign.”
The rival campaign, Oxford Students For Britain, also weighed in on the debate this week. Current President, Oliver Shore, appeared to relish the emergence of the OSFE. “We are pleased to see a free and fair debate on Britain’s membership of the EU beginning in Oxford,” he stated. “After nearly 40 years without consultation the British people are finally being allowed a say in whether they want to be governed by Brussels.” Shore went on to invite all students “who have become disillusioned with the prospect of continued membership of the European Union” to join him in the ‘Out’ campaign.
Since Friday’s launch of the Oxford Students For Europe, several student political parties have come out in support, affirming Macfarlane and Klemperer’s claims to being a cross-party movement.
The Oxford University Labour Club made clear it “warmly welcomes the launch of Oxford Students for Europe.
“As an organisation with a pro-EU position, we look forward to a healthy working relationship with them and hope to see them on the campaign trail soon.”
Oxford University Liberal Democrats, for their part, praised OSFE as “An excellent student initiative, bringing together people from across the political spectrum” and further that they intend to be “fully engaged both with OSFE and with the wider campaign to keep Britain at the heart of Europe.”
“Liberal Democrats have always preferred a less tribal way of doing politics, and we’re looking forward to being able to share a common platform with members of other parties,” their senior co-chair, Gareth Wilkes said.
The Oxford University Conservative Association re-emphasised its strict neutrality in its comment, telling Cherwell, “Considering the variety of views which our members have on the question of EU membership, OUCA has decided not to support either the ‘In’ or the ‘Out’ campaigns.
“[We pride ourselves] on being a home to all shades of conservative opinion and so [we] feel that this measure will allow us to continue our tradition of incorporating as many different views as possible.”