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.

    • David Simpson

      If you want to comment on these blogs then show a bit of respect to Labour’s leader

      • jaime taurosangastre candelas

        That is very authoritarian.

        Respect has to be earned. And to me, Ed Miliband has earned very little respect as Labour’s leader, and indeed has not shaken off his disastrous record as a SpAD or Climate Change Secretary.

        He seems to me to be part of the problem, not any part of a solution.

    • RAnjeh

      Not really because he could call for a straight in/out referendum in autumn 2015 (which I think he will) and that could destroy Cameron’s leadership. Cameron wants one in 2017 or 2018 but if Miliband advances his call for a referendum a good two to three years earlier, Tory backbenchers would back it and Cameron would be put on the spot. Either he’ll be defending a vote in three years putting more economic uncertainty and not trusting the people soon enough or he’ll have to match Miliband’s referendum and vote to stay ‘in’. Miliband could literally destroy Cameron, but he should wait after Wharton’s Bill.

  • 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?

      • RAnjeh

        Oh come on, that is a terrible argument against a referendum. Anyway, 1975 referendum was not even on the EU but the EEC. Even so, surely my generation should have a chance to decide on the major institution outside this country. I say that as a strong (but sceptical) pro-European.

      • StevenBoxall

        Chrisso, I agree with you. I think referenda should hold no part in a proper parliamentary democracy. Referenda don’t tend to address the real substantive issues. The press and media, being owned by a few people with their own interests bambozal the public with misinformation; we have policitians who have abandoned spin and just lie becuase they know that the press don’t pick them up on it, and it appears that we have MPs who take money from overseas organisations to represent their interests in Parliament rather than those of their constituents.

        But democracy is about more than the public being allowed to vote every few years, with the politicians telling lies to get in, and pushing the extream end of their agenda without thinking ‘we actualy have no mass support across the country to do this’ . . Some people are pushing for a referendum because they feel that they have been sold a pup and a lie as far as the EU is concerned – No real case has been made for or against the EU – we were only told it would be called the Economic Union the day after the treaty was signed beause no one had the courage to spell this out to the public.

        So, no. I don’t like referenda, but eventaully people call for one when they think that they are being taken as mugs and for granted.

      • MonkeyBot5000

        In what way are referenda democratic…

        You.. I… *facepalm*

  • Terry Swift

    I have always worked and voted labour, but if Milliband does not give us a cast iron promise of a vote on the EU I and many many others will vote UKIP.
    The vast majority of the population demand a vote and if Ed does not recognise that, he will be recognised as not fit to govern.
    He had better realise Labour should be the party of the people, instead of acting like little Tories.

  • RAnjeh

    He will have to give a referendum. He hjust will. Can’t go into 2015, with no referendum it would be electoral sucidie.

  • 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.

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      A very intelligent and balanced post, and indeed the same applies to your reference. The most powerful point you make is “bullet” 2, “it allows the people to tell political elites to be responsive“.

      I am inclined to support you, but for one single fact. The reverse of the referendum needed for secession is a referendum needed for subjugation. There is only one way in which the EU project is going, even if it takes a few decades to get there. A United States of Europe. The sovereign nation of the United Kingdom to become a mere region of some foreign power. No one in the 1970s stated that, but yet it is the destination. So we should have a clear-eyed vote on whether that is what we want.

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