Labour’s position on an EU referendum hasn’t changed

June 14, 2013 9:59 am

There was much excitement yesterday as news leaked that Labour will abstain on James Wharton’s Private Member’s Bill on July 5th. That’s a sentence that until a few weeks ago I never thought I’d type because a) Wharton is an almost entirely anonymous MP, notable only for annoying the North East (he’ll be out on his ear in two years) and b) because Private Member’s Bills don’t usually command much attention being, as they are, a form of (often impotent) protest, rather than a realistic attempt at producing legislation. Even parliament’s own website says “as less time is allocated to these Bills, it’s less likely that they will proceed through all the stages”.

They’re one step up from the “parliamentary graffiti” of an EDM, but it’s by no means a big step…

So because Private Member’s Bills rarely amount to much, it’s rare for a party to whip their MPs to stay in Westminster on a Friday (which is usually a constituency day) to argue over a bill that unlikely to amount to a hill of beans. It’s actually Cameron, rather than Miliband (or even Clegg) who is behaving unusually here by implementing a three line whip.

Lets not forget that this whole farrago (or should that be Farrage-o) over Europe came about because Cameron omitted such legislation from his own Queen’s Speech. It’s a piece of parliamentary theatrics that will amount to nothing, except giving the Tory backbenches something to cheer, and buying Cameron some time before his troops inevitably realise they’ve been let down. And considering what a sticky position Cameron is in with his own MPs at the moment, such hassle is still worth it for such meagre gains.

All that Labour are doing is refusing to play the pantomime villain at the Tory Party’s own end of the pier show. If anything, it could be argued that as Private Member’s Bills are so easy to kill off by filibuster, the only interesting thing happening here is that Labour doesn’t want to outright kill this bill.

But nor is Ed Miliband likely to announce a spectacular u-turn and call for an EU referendum either – as much as I and many others in the party might want him to. Those close to the Labour leader could not be clearer in their certainty that calling for a referendum is the wrong approach to take. If the plan is for the party to announce a change of plan at a later stage, this is one hell of a “long con” that he and his team are playing with anyone who queries Labour’s position.

The truth is that Labour’s position stems from one thing alone. Ed Miliband seems never to have wavered in his belief that in May 2015 he will become Prime Minister. And the last thing he wants on his plate for the first 18 months of a Labour government is a messy EU referendum.

Whilst I think he’s missing an opportunity to bolster Labour’s democratic credentials by giving the electorate a say on the Europe question, it’s hard not to admire that level of confidence and focus.

  • JoeDM

    Milibean is leaving a big open goal and allowing the Tories and UKIP free penalty shots on the EU.

    He could regret this dithering non-decision come 2015.

  • Mike Wood

    Not sure it’s fair to suggest that Private Member’s Bills are not realistic attempts at producing legislation. 10 out of the 11 Private Member’s Bills sponsored by Conservative MPs last year are now on the statute book. Whilst past performance is no guarantee of future results, you have to like those odds.

    Miliband’s strategy (which I think is probably tactically right) seems to be that it is better for the legislation to pass now, more than a year before the General Election, than for the prospect of legislation to be a General Election issue. If he then won the 2015 election, he may gamble that his best chance of securing a vote to stay in the EU would be to hold a snap referendum during the new Government’s honeymoon period, at a time when the economy is likely to be growing. He could then dress that tactical decision up as principle by arguing that British businesss cannot afford the uncertainty to hang over the economy until 2017, Tories put Party interest ahead of national interest (if he could get those words out whilst keeping a straight face) etc.

  • StevenBoxall

    If Labour (or Miliband) doesn’t want an EU Referendum then he had better start making it work for the UK and the people of Europe (the 99%) rather than the 1%, tax-dodging big business and the ‘elite’. The European Project has been pushed through without the knowledge or consent of the people.

    • Chrisso

      Er, there was the small matter of a national referendum in 1975. How often should we hold one? Every decade? Should it be binding or just consultative? In what way are referenda democratic and part and parcel of parliamentary democracy? Should we have them on abortion, capi punishment, arming all police officers, etc?

      • MonkeyBot5000

        In what way are referenda democratic…

        You.. I… *facepalm*

  • robertcp

    Abstaining is probably the right approach on this Bill.

  • Chrisso

    I’m not alone in my concern about the plethora of neverendum referendum proposals. This 2008 article (by a politics professor) is worth a re-read:

    http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/the-referendum-populism-vs-democracy

    There are three grounds to vindicate the institution of the referendum:
    ▪ it restores democracy to the people
    ▪ it allows the people to tell political elites to be responsive
    ▪ it restores ‘the people’s will’ to the storehouse of democratic instruments.

    The Schopflin article goes on to say that “the championing of referenda has a
    series of four untenable assumptions, worth itemising …”

    1. In complex modern societies there is no such thing as “the people” – a leftover from the time when democracy had to be legitimated in the eyes of anti-democrats; its residue today leaves it open to political manipulation.

    2. Referenda are unsuitable ways of addressing complex issues because they offer
    the illusion of a simple answer to complexity. Modern politics is about weighing
    various options, in circumstances where issues only very seldom appear in
    stark, good-v-bad form.

    3. Referenda reintroduce the tyranny of the majority, the very thing that modern democracies have diluted by, for example, upgrading the role of civil society.

    4. Referenda offer power without responsibility, in that voters can confront
    elites without having to face the consequences of their action. At their heart,
    referenda provide an opportunity for ad-hoc negative coalitions that never have
    to worry about the outcome. The far left and far right coming together in
    France in the May 2005 referendum on the European Union’s constitutional treaty
    was an example; the two sides could never have governed together, but they
    could operate as a spoiler.

    I’m sure other arguments against referenda can be marshalled but these seem
    sufficient for me. Indeed there is only one type of referendum I would support,
    that of secession such as the Scottish parliament’s decision to seek
    independence. In 1992 the federal state of Czechoslovakia was dissolved without
    a referendum yet it seemed that only a minority in both countries supported the
    dissolution. So if a British government decided that we *should* leave the EU, only
    then IMO should a referendum be held.

Latest

  • Featured In praise of Simon Danczuk

    In praise of Simon Danczuk

    Simon Danczuk has led the front pages this week with his explosive account of how an MP could hide a lifetime of abusing children. The Westminster reaction to his Cyril Smith allegations? Embarrassed coughs. Good on Simon for having the courage to speak his mind. Since his 2010 election, itself a feat of endurance, he’s demonstrated a forensic mind and a canny eye for a story. He represents a diminishing Westminster breed, a ‘character’ who speaks with an authentic voice […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured Swinging The Axe – Why hiring Axelrod means Miliband is going big

    Swinging The Axe – Why hiring Axelrod means Miliband is going big

    David Axelrod has been hired by Labour to work on the party’s general election campaign. First – let me get the excitement out. David Axelrod is the biggest star in the world when it comes to political campaigning. Nevermind “guru”, this guy is a campaigning deity in his own right. From Barack Obama’s Chicago kitchen table to the Oval Office was a journey that few thought possible, but Axelrod managed the shift from state senator, to Senator, to President in […]

    Read more →
  • News Video David Axelrod’s video message to Labour members and supporters

    David Axelrod’s video message to Labour members and supporters

    Labour’s new strategist David Axelrod – who helped get Obama elected in 2008 and 2012 – has recorded a message for Labour members and supporters. He argues that “It’s isn’t people like me who win these elections – it’s people like you” – here’s the video in full:

    Read more →
  • Comment 10 social history visits for British politicos

    10 social history visits for British politicos

    New Lanark (Lanarkshire) The Robert Owen Museum (Montgomeryshire) The People’s Palace (Glasgow) St Giles’ Cathedral (Edinburgh) The People’s History Museum (Manchester) The International Slavery Museum (Liverpool) Cable Street (London) The Holocaust Memorial Garden (London) The British Library (London) The Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum (Dorset) Obviously most LabourList readers think of this Saturday as part of the countdown to polling day but on the off-chance your organiser is letting you get any friends and family time this holiday weekend, here are ten […]

    Read more →
  • Featured News Obama veteran David Axelrod joins Labour campaign team

    Obama veteran David Axelrod joins Labour campaign team

    There are few superstars in political campaigning – but David Axelrod is undoubtedly one of them. And he’s joining Labour’s 2015 election campaign team. The Obama veteran – who took the US President from state senator to the White House in a matter of years, and then got him re-elected – will be joining Labour’s campaign team as a Senior Strategic Adviser. That means he’ll be going head to head with fellow Obama veteran Jim Messina (now working with the […]

    Read more →