Yesterday Lord Prescott, John Prescott, Prezza, declared that he was for a referendum. Not a 2017 referendum, not for a referendum at the General Election, but for one now.
I can’t fault his logic; the line is “let’s shoot Cameron’s fox and give the people their say on Europe now”. It would be beautiful. Ed Miliband stands up at the next PMQs, whenever Cameron can be bothered to take one, and declares that ‘The Prime Minister’s course is destabilising, unnecessarily causing uncertainty and not in the national interest, and so we must have a referendum now to settle the issue for a generation’. Either way Labour would win points by doing the right thing. If Cameron called a referendum Ed Miliband would look statesman-like, Labour would be defining the agenda, ready to govern again, or Cameron would falter, not call a referendum, and his party would implode.
Beyond that, during the referendum, Cameron would split The Conservative Party, he would lead a decent sized number of pro-Europeans campaigning to stay in, while a vocal minority of his MPs would vigorously campaign for ‘Out’. His leadership would never recover. We, on the other hand, would be largely united on the issue, Ed Miliband leading an almost certainly victorious ‘In’ campaign. It would wash away any remaining progressive shame for the loss of the AV referendum, give us a new sense of purpose, and a leader who spoke to the people of The United Kingdom and took them with him.
Until now it has been unfashionable to argue for a referendum in the Labour Party. Within the last few months that has been changing increasingly quickly. As with the AV referendum, which was seen as an internal coalition fight originally, it has taken John Prescott’s intervention to make it a wholly credible position for committed Labour activists. The shift is not just visible in our venerable ex-Deputy Prime Minister. Ed Balls has been repeatedly dropping hints that he thinks a referendum is the right policy for us. Most recently, on Friday, Ed Balls said “I certainly don’t think we can ever afford to give the impression that we know better than the voting public.” This follows similar comments a few weeks before (also in the Yorkshire Post). Keith Vaz has been arguing for a referendum ‘now’ for months, and is feeling truly vindicated that so many others in the Party have come round to his position, because “we cannot afford to be painted as anti-democratic”.
Personally, as I speak to more and more Labour members, activists, candidates and those already elected, I see that there is a serious shift. People see the validity of the argument, and mostly think that ‘In’ will win any vote and, most importantly, understand that it is the symbolism of truly consulting the people that matters most. John Prescott saw that, and so he is calling for us to support an EU Referendum, and that is why he was Deputy Prime Minister in one of the greatest governments this country has ever had.