Would Labour be mad to promise an EU referendum?


9:01 am - May 29th 2012

by Leo Barasi    


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Number five on my list of trends to watch this year was Britain’s attitudes to the EU.

In 2011, opinion had swung towards Britain’s staying a member and I guessed the trend would continue as an EU vote became increasingly plausible.

What I didn’t realise was that I was writing at the moment when Britain’s love for Europe was at its peak.

Since then, the proportion who say they’d vote to stay in the EU has dropped by a third:

This shift raises questions about Labour’s recent hints that it’s considering pledging an EU referendum.

The general view seems to be that Labour is bluffing to create problems for the Tories. The logic is that talk of an EU referendum hurts the Tories much more than it does Labour.

Keeping the issue in the news gives credibility to UKIP, unless the Tories make the same pledge. And if they did promise a referendum, the Tory leadership would have to say which way it would campaign – presumably for staying in the EU, which would put them on the other side from most of their base:

But though the issue may hurt the Tories more than Labour, the assumption remains that Labour’s suggestion can’t really be serious. A referendum campaign would be a huge distraction for a Labour government. Only a small proportion of the public consider Europe to be one of the top issues facing the country (6% at last count), so not to have a referendum wouldn’t cost a Labour government much.

Further, a no vote in a referendum would define how the government would be remembered by history. Assuming that the leadership wouldn’t actually want to withdraw, why take such a risk, with relatively little to gain?

But there are tempting electoral reasons why Labour might commit to a referendum. The discomfort for the Tories of having to publicly discuss the EU has been proven in the past. A commitment to a referendum combined with a bold pro-EU campaign would challenge the belief that Labour doesn’t have clear policies and could be part of a new narrative of re-opening British politics and society (combined perhaps with primaries for candidates).

Crucially, a referendum should be entirely winnable, despite this year’s polls. As I’ve pointed out, opinion has shifted radically during previous referenda in the UK, including the 1975 EEC vote and last year’s AV poll. It’s also plausible that opinion on the EU is not now at a normal level, but rather is unusually low because of the crisis in Europe.

Despite all this, I still struggle to see Labour benefiting from pledging a vote. To do so would mean going into the general election with the offer “if you hate the EU, vote for us, and then when we’re elected we’ll campaign to stay in.”

Even with the potential for Labour to use the pledge as part of a demonstration of renewed vigour and fresh thinking, and the good chances of winning a vote, the risks surely outweigh the benefits. But given the tactical gains for Labour of keeping the story in the news, I expect it to smoulder for some time.

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About the author
Leo is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He manages communications for a small policy organisation, and writes about polling and info from public opinion surveys at Noise of the Crowd
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Reader comments


1. Chaise Guevara

“Crucially, a referendum should be entirely winnable, despite this year’s polls. ”

Yeah, right. I’m sure those earnest and complicated explanations of the trade benefits will wipe the floor with posters misrepresenting the costs of membership, claiming we have no sovereign power, and showing pictures of Greek riots while going “dun-dun-duuun!” You know, just like how we now have AV because nobody fell for scare tactics and appeals to greed.

2. Planeshift

@1 – the crucial difference is that big business allegedly benefits from our EU membership, and (assuming this is the case) would therefore be forced to confront the dysfunctional nature of the debate and react accordingly. Numerous big businesses warnng of thousands of job losses would concentrate the minds.

Pledging a referendum on EU membership within months of a labour victory would be an absolute masterstroke, and guarentee a sizeable majority. (uness the tories did so as well – in which case the prize would go to the party that did it first as the other party would be seen as having been presurised into it). If the tories didn’t commit to it, labour would take votes from core tory voters and UKIP would tactically vote for labour. It would also settle the issue for another few decades and enable policy makers to plan accordingly.

At the present time I think the result would go either way, although the yes campaign would have to rule out euro membership. In 2016 in a recovering economy then yes would have the edge.

OTOH failure to call a referendum gaurentees that UKIP continues to rise in the polls and demands for a referendum become unstopable. It will be seen as the elite denying the people a say, and eventually a referendum will be held anyway, with the no vote getting 75% plus.

Leo, I really like your polling stuff, but…..

In what way can a piece of nonsense from Alex Massie at the Spectator be taken as the ‘general view’ on Labour’s intentions?

The key problem with your argument is that an EU Refendum in 6 years time will be fought on the same grounds as one held in 6 months.

In six months, the question posed to the public would be:

‘Should the UK stay in the EU even though it’s totally shit and undemocratic, has made us all poorer, and anyway everyone knows they’ve nicked all our law powers, but because not being it might be worse like it is for, erm, Switzerland or Norway or someone?’

In six years, if Labour and other like-minded parties in Europe get their act together, the question might be:

‘Should the UK continue to engage productively with the EU now that Ed and Francois and Alexis have worked with their parties to develop a democatic EU where the balance between parliament and council of ministers is remade, the neoliberal assumptions built into Lisbon have been amended, and the Stability Pact/Fiscal Compact has been chucked in the bin to be replaced by sensible policies which are helping us all recover from the shite Merkozy left us with?’

The talk of a referendum comes from an (early) confidence in Labour that this can be achieved; though it’s not been thought through properly yet, I suspect, it’s not a bluff (though I don’t doubt that ‘outflanking’ calculations do play a part).

Of course, it would help if Labour MPs didn’t sign up to an All Party Parliamentary Group on European Reform with rabid rightwing worker-bashing ‘think tank’ Ope Europe as its secretariat, but it’s early days.

4. Chaise Guevara

@ 2 Planeshift

Good point RE business. I agree it would be an electoral masterstroke, I just think it’s a big risk to take to win an election that Labour ought to be able to win hands down anyway.

If the Eurozone crisis leads to fiscal integration, I think it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the UK (or Lesser Britain if the SNP get their way) to stay within the EU. There would be too many complications for us and the Nordics to accept, not least the lack of democracy.

6. Planeshift

“just think it’s a big risk to take to win an election that Labour ought to be able to win hands down anyway.”

The next general election may well be an england and wales only affair. If that is the case labour needs the english working class vote in the south that it currently doesn’t have- and one of the few realistic ways of doing this is the EU referendum.

The political elite cannot go on assuming they can ignore the issue, it is a major drag on the perception of politics in this country.

51% want out, that is with 30 years of anti EU rhetoric and outright lies from the press in the UK. I can’t see that figure getting any higher during a campaign, so I would have thought an Yes vote is very possible. Esp if the pro-Europeans got the backing of the silent majority of big business.

Labour would need to campaign very hard, they would need to do it early before it became a referendum on them in power. They would also need to counter act the press which would be difficult.

Even without the party advantage it may bring, the benefits of winning the vote would be massive for any government.

8. Chaise Guevara

@ 6

“The next general election may well be an england and wales only affair.”

Gah! Don’t remind me.

9. Robin Levett

@JC #5:

There would be too many complications for us and the Nordics to accept, not least the lack of democracy.

This always strikes me as an odd position to take. The UK insists on retaining decision-making power within the EU – including nomination of Commissioners and President – at intergovernmental level, doing its best to turn the democratic institutions in the EU into mere talking shops, and then complains that the EU is undemocratic…

This would be I suspect a unique episode of a government seeking public disapproval for its platform by referendum. I find it bizarre and incoherent that it has even been considered. We should not be entertaining gimmicks solely to wrong foot the tories.

Paul @3

In six months, the question posed to the public would be:

‘Should the UK stay in the EU even though it’s totally shit and undemocratic, has made us all poorer, and anyway everyone knows they’ve nicked all our law powers, but because not being it might be worse like it is for, erm, Switzerland or Norway or someone?’

A more accurate question would be:

Should the UK stay in the EU even though it’s totally shit and undemocratic, has made us all poorer, and anyway everyone knows they’ve nicked all our law powers, but because not being it would mean that we have to follow laws in which we have with no say – like Switzerland, Norway or Lichtenstein do – instead of having the second biggest say in the making of those laws like we currently do?

12. Planeshift

” I suspect a unique episode of a government seeking public disapproval for its platform by referendum”

It’s the only realistic way that any government is going to have freedom to establish its policy – a straight in/out question answered ‘yes’ would give the government far more freedom to negotiate new treaties and play a role at the heart of the institution. A ‘no’ answer leaves the government free to negotiate a Norway/Switzerland type relationship and moves british politics onwards.

Inaction on the referendum front cripples the government’s ability to develop the relationship either way, whilst only delaying the inevitable.

“It’s the only realistic way that any government is going to have freedom to establish its policy”

Rather than in the old fashioned way by winning an election?

14. Planeshift

“Rather than in the old fashioned way by winning an election?”

If you think winning an election will allow the labour party to negotiate an EU constitution or similar type of major change, then you’re in cloud cukoo land. Blair had 3 figure majorities and freely admits he wouldn’t have been able to do so without a referendum. No referendum means any attempt at closer EU integration is political suicide, and no british prime minister is going to attempt it without the mandate that winning an in/out referendum would give them.

Have the referendum and settle the issue. Pro-europeans should not be afraid of it because of the tabloid press. It is winnable. Failure to attempt it hands the initiative to euro-scpetics who will just claim pro-europeans are undemocratic and afraid of debate.

15. Northern Worker

Offering a straight in/out referendum would be a great move for Labour. The whole point of political parties is to represent the people and the majority want out, albeit a majority mostly made up of Tories. If Ed Milliband made such an offer, I might even start voting Labour again!

There really isn’t anything to fear about leaving the EU. I’m so old as to have voted against it the only time we were given a choice. Ted Heath swore it was just free trade; a lot has changed since and we now have some sort of unelected elite (allegedly) trying to take us over by stealth. There really was life before the EU, you know. We even travelled abroad and I well remember as a teenager thinking how poor Paris and Spain were compared to us!

I think it would be a smart move for Labour. Yeh, the Tories might never, ever be elected again!!!

It confuses me why Tory supporters are normally anti-EU and Labour supporters pro. Considering the right wing orientation of the EU it would seem more logical for it to be the other way round, as it once was.

17. Planeshift

@16 – In 1983 labour proposed leaving.

There have always been left wing euro-sceptics, and also right wing euro-sceptics. It’s just the way the media have portrayed the debate that makes people think tories are euro-scpetics.

“Have the referendum and settle the issue. ”

Why would this referendum settle the issue given that the very premise would suggest that the last one didn’t? Or is it only settled if the vote is “no”?

“Blair had 3 figure majorities and freely admits he wouldn’t have been able to do so without a referendum.”

I have I suspect a greater admiration for Blair than is usual for this site but even I would hesitate to argue something was true based simply on the fact that he asserted it. We joined without a referendum in 1973. Ten years later the Labour Party sought election on the basis that we would leave without one. Either party can campaign on a platform of closer integration. How successful they would be is another matter but I see no objection in principle.

20. Robin Levett

@Northern Worker #13:

I’m so old as to have voted against it the only time we were given a choice. Ted Heath swore it was just free trade…

I’m not quite old enough to have voted – but do remember the arguments. Would that be the Ted Heath who said this in a Tory election manifesto in 1974:

Membership of the EEC brings us great economic advantages, but the European Community is not a matter of accountancy. There are two basic ideas behind the formation of the Common Market; first, that having nearly destroyed themselves by two great European civil wars, the European nations should make a similar war impossible in future; and, secondly, that only through unity could the western European nations recover control over their destiny – a control which they had lost after two wars, the division of Europe and the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union.

The question of sovereignty was flogged to death in the referendum campaign; but the “Yes” side didn’t deny that there was an issue; it instead argued that we had more control over our destiny in than out.

The Labour promise of a referendum on EU membership is a tactical master-stroke. The bluff of the Eurosceptical commentariat, and of the UKIP that promised to dissolve itself in 2010 if the Conservatives made this very pledge, has now been called. But the provision for it must be only the sixth clause of a six-clause Bill, the other five clauses of which would come into effect anyway.

First, the restoration of the supremacy of British over EU law, and its use to repatriate agricultural policy and to restore our historic fishing rights (200 miles, or to the median line) in accordance with international law. Secondly, the requirement that, in order to have any effect in the United Kingdom, all EU law pass through both Houses of Parliament as if it had originated in one or other of them. Thirdly, the requirement that British Ministers adopt the show-stopping Empty Chair Policy until such time as the Council of Ministers meets in public and publishes an Official Report akin to Hansard. Fourthly, the disapplication in the United Kingdom of any ruling of the European Court of Justice or of the European Court of Human Rights unless confirmed by a resolution of the House of Commons, the High Court of Parliament.

And fifthly, the disapplication in the United Kingdom of anything passed by the European Parliament but not by the majority of those MEPs certified as politically acceptable by one or more seat-taking members of the House of Commons. Thus, we would no longer subject to the legislative will of Stalinists and Trotskyists, neo-Fascists and neo-Nazis, members of Eastern Europe’s kleptomaniac nomenklatura, neoconservatives such as now run Germany and until lately ran France, people who believe the Provisional Army Council to be the sovereign body throughout Ireland, or Dutch ultra-Calvinists who will not have women candidates. Soon to be joined by Turkey’s Islamists, secular ultranationalists, and violent Kurdish Marxist separatists.

Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas, over to you.

Who says that a Labour Government would not to withdraw? Why assume such a thing? Why wouldn’t it want to?

Thankfully, Ed Miliband is more, say, Peter Shore or Bryan Gould than Tony Benn. But he is, and Ed Balls and Jon Cruddas are both even more so.

By 2015, Miliband probably wouldn’t weep if there were a vote to leave whatever was left of the EU by then. Balls and Cruddas wouldn’t weep, to say the very least, even now.

“Who says that a Labour Government would not to withdraw?”

The Labour Party.

23, you can see that clearly all the way to 2015, can you?

Already, Cruddas and Balls are full-blown Eurosceptics, and Miliband himself is not very far off. But then, Labour has never been terribly keen on the EU, with a very sizeable element, right across the Left-Right and Old Labour-New Labour spectra, that could not stand the thing. To say the very least, none of that has been changed by recent and ongoing events. And just think where events will have taken us by the time of the next General Election.

25. Planeshift

“Why would this referendum settle the issue given that the very premise would suggest that the last one didn’t? ”

Because the nature of the EU has substantially changed since the 1970s.

Any thoughts about the principles with regard to whether labour should favour a referendum? Why has this site become choc a block with strategy briefings, at the expense of proper political commentary?

27. douglas clark

Well, I have not read every comment on this post, however, it would appear to leave Scotland as the only possible cadidate for continuing EU membership. What with you lot wanting out, an’ all?

Where now any denial of Scotlands’ right to a position in the EU?

27, I hope that you would be very proud to be in the same position as the Mafia State of Montenegro as an applicant for EU membership. Not that the Scottish electorate is any more pro-EU than the English one.

As if the pro-EU stand had not always made the SNP’s position preposterous, along have come the present, ongoing events. Imagine what things will look like by the autumn of 2014. The independence referendum is lost.

The EU was the making of Scottish Nationalism. Look where it was 40 years ago, and then look where it is today, or at any rate was until recent weeks. The EU will let anywhere have an international dialling code or what you, provided that it has absolutely no desire actually to run its own affairs. Just ask the Irish.

But now, the EU is well on course to be the unmaking of Scottish Nationalism, too.

@ Leo Barasi,

“Would Labour be mad to promise an EU referendum?”

How about instead considering, “Would labour be right or wrong to promise an EU referendum?”

@ planeshift

“Have the referendum and settle the issue. Pro-europeans should not be afraid of it because of the tabloid press. It is winnable. Failure to attempt it hands the initiative to euro-scpetics who will just claim pro-europeans are undemocratic and afraid of debate.”

That is both a principled and sensible reply.

Personally I would prefer to remain in a considerably reformed EU. In any case, it is dispiriting to see a legitimate matter of democracy treated by some either from a purely partisan perspective or with the attitude that the proles can’t be trusted to make the right decision. That’s the same base mentality that dictators have. Why trust them even with a vote in a general election?

If the public aren’t treated like rational adults on this, then at some point when they do eventually get their say there is a strong chance the majority will reject the EU entirely, because they will associate its supporters with undemocratic elitism.

And on that, at least, they won’t be totally wrong.

Because the nature of the EU has substantially changed since the 1970s.

The trouble is, it hasn’t. At all. And politicians were perfectly honest about this in the 1970s. See the Heath quote above.

Anyone who claims the debate didn’t happen, or that the EEC was presented to referendum voters as solely an economic community, is at best remembering things badly (if of age at the time) or being misled by subsequent anti-EU propaganda (if not).

You *could* make a case for a referendum on the basis that the majority of voters in 2012 were not voters in 1975, which would have the merit of not being a lie.

@ john b (30):

Yes and no I think. The governing principle of the EU is “ever-closer union”, however, this wasn’t shouted about in the 70’s. Indeed, the EU’s founders believed that closer integration had to be carried out stealthily to avoid scaring people off.

What’s interesting now, is that matters are coming to a head due to the Euro crisis. There are effectively two solutions:

1) Full monetary union, involving central economic control of the eurozone, and transfers between regions (ie a structure such as the UK).

2) A break-up of the Eurozone.

The first meets the goal of ever closer union. Indeed, in this context, the crisis can be seen as a boon to Euro-Federalists.

Ultimately, the point of the EU is to become a single federal nation. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is up for debate, but surely it’s a good idea to settle the matter before we reach the point of no return.

jack:
That oversimplifies the history and nature of the EU, which is predominantly about the interplay between nations. Effectively, it’s the Brussels take (both in that the people who want the union to be closest are Brussels officials, and in that Belgium is a country whose citizens have pretty much zero patriotic attachment to their nation-state).

But the organisations with the most power in the EU remain national governments, not any of the EU institutions – and specifically, the British, French and German governments.

So Germany reluctantly joined the euro in order to get French approval for reunification; without that deal, there would have been no euro. Britain’s decision to stay out of the euro meant that it didn’t become an essential part of EU membership; without our opt-out, everyone else would have been press-ganged in. Same with Schengen. The British euro opt-out also ensured that Germany (or at least, German thinking) controlled the setup of eurozone institutions and hence monetary policy. A euro with the UK in it would have been structured, and would have behaved, very differently from the one in this universe.

And that’s still what we’re seeing. People in Brussels want to use the crisis to drive closer union, because that’s what they do. But they don’t get a say over what actually happens, because those decisions will be made by national governments in Athens, Madrid, Paris, London and, most importantly, Berlin.

33. Planeshift

“The trouble is, it hasn’t. At all”

Whilst I’m not an expert on europe, I think euro-scpetics would probably note that the maastrict treaty, the euro and the substantial addition of new member states constitute significant changes.you’re right that power still lies within (some) national governments, but the nature of the beast has changed since the 70s.

Certainly bigger changes than the changes in the Welsh Assembly moving from part 3 to part 4 of the government of Wales act – which the labour party insisted required a referendum.

34. Chaise Guevara

@ 28 David Lindsay

“The EU will let anywhere have an international dialling code or what you, provided that it has absolutely no desire actually to run its own affairs.”

Lindsay’s right, of course. Since joining the EU, Britain has passed no laws, imposed no taxes, not had a prime minister, in fact. The Houses of Parliaments are empty except for once a year, when they are used to hold a banquet for the visiting Emperor of Europe. The Emporer visits, of course, to give us our budget for the tax year. Is the Emperor Hitler? I’m pretty sure it’s Hitler.

Oh, wait, that all happens in an alternative reality where David Lindsay is an erudite political commentator.

john b:
I don’t think I’m over-simplying, “ever-closer union” really is the direction (and is enshrined in the Treaty of Rome). That doesn’t make the EU a bad thing.

As regards the UK opting-out of the Euro, how has this affected the overall structure? In what ways would the Euro be “very different”?

In my view, the Euro has two key flaws:

1) A currency union between disparate states requires very clear rules, and strong enforcement. The Euro has rules, but very little enforcement. (Don’t forget that the UK didn’t qualify for membership anyway). The Euro became a political rather than an economic project.

2) As you mention, nation states (mostly France and Germany) still ultimately control EU policy. This is clearly not suitable for a currency union. Imagine, for example, if the UK chancellor had to, this time, come from the Midlands? This is why we need a decision: Federation, or Nation States? The current halfway-house doesn’t work and can’t work.

A promise did we not have a promise before, a promise is not the same to a politician

34, ask the Irish who the Emperor is. They’ll tell you.

That is what being a small state in the EU consists of. Scotland, take note.

37

We should follow Tony Benn’s lead, a eurosceptic and marxist.

39. Trooper Thompson

As someone wholly in favour of leaving the EU, I don’t think Labour will gain much from this unless they are sincere in wanting to have a proper democratic debate and actually abide by the people’s decision, whatever it be. Otherwise it seems very cynical. Such a referendum would be very divisive.

38, no, we should follow the lead of Peter Shore, Douglas Jay, David Stoddart, Bryan Gould and Jon Cruddas: Eurosceptics, and anything but Marxists.

41. Tubby Isaacs

“he EU was the making of Scottish Nationalism. Look where it was 40 years ago, and then look where it is today”

Scottish Nationalism was strong 40 year ago. 11 MPs, third of the vote in Nov 1974.

41, that was still after accession.

Within two generations, Scottish Nationalism has gone to where it is now from a position in which it united Communist poets (although expelled from the CPGB for adhering to it), upper-class inhabitants of a Celtic fantasy world in their remote country seats, and more or less, even explicitly, Jacobite Episcopalian clerics.

The promise ostensibly held out by the EU was entirely responsible for that change, and the spectacular demise of that promise will be entirely responsible for the change back. Except that there is no longer either a CPGB or an orthodox wing of the Episcopal Church to which to go back. But there are still upper-class inhabitants of a Celtic fantasy world in their remote country seats. There probably always will be.

“we should follow the lead of…Bryan Gould”

Emigration seems a little drastic.


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