Guest blog from Julian Priestley: ‘A referendum on Europe? A bad good idea’

We are told that ‘senior’ Labour figures are thinking about proposing an ‘in or out’ referendum on Europe after the next election with a view to the pro-side winning and settling the argument once and for all. Our Europe spokesman is said to be weighing it up, although he remains as yet ‘unconvinced’. And, it must have seemed a good idea at the time, probably late at night and after a few beers.

It would- so its advocates believe- split the coalition parties, embarrass the Tories, and shield Labour from eurosceptic attack from the right wing press. Victory for the pro-Europeans would mean that we could finally lay the whole issue to rest.

Proposing a referendum on leaving the EU in order to campaign for staying in is just the kind of cockeyed triangulation that we have come to know so well over the past fifteen years and which discredits politics and usually embarrasses its proponents.

First, British membership is not a live issue in UK politics at the moment. The coalition has settled down to a kind of low-level euroscepticism which just adds to our marginalisation but has not yet done further irreparable harm. If Labour has a European policy it is being rather quiet about it. To propose a referendum on leaving the EU would reopen a debate which should be allowed to wither away in the columns of the Daily Express and the Murdoch media. Why give the whole thing legs?

It would also perplex the British people who might think that Labour would do better to marshal its forces on issues of more immediate concern- saving jobs, fighting health service cuts and rampant inequality. And if the British people did not get it, imagine the consternation of our socialist allies in the other member states.

Second, the Tories would not be the only ones split on the issue for there are still some in our own party nostalgic for a return to the heyday of Common Market Safeguards and Get Britain Out. On the other hand the extreme right would have a field day.

Third, it would settle nothing. A resounding ‘yes’ vote in the 1975 referendum led to Labour espousing unconditional withdrawal (and this time without a referendum) within eight years. Would the Tory right and the Europhobic press really accept the result?

Fourth, with the Tories in opposition post-2015, and with the anti-Labour press rampant would we really want a Labour government to have to squander its energy and authority on trying to win a referendum simply to maintain the status quo? And were the Labour government actually to lose the referendum why lumber the whole of that first term with the absolute mess that withdrawal from the EU would create?

For the defeat of the anti-Europeans in a referendum is not a foregone conclusion. The public might well take an anarchic delight in giving the result which would most embarrass the authors of this wheeze who seem to have chosen the nadir of Europe’s public support to start a process which could take us backward towards the main exit.

Fifth, progressives should be very wary about referendums. They are rarely instruments for change, and almost never on the actual question posed. If we had proceeded by referendum most of the social advance of the last hundred years would have been stopped in its tracks.

Sixth, and perhaps most importantly, the whole gambit is a massive distraction from working out a coherent European policy the aim of which should not be to cling on in Europe but to take us to the heart of the whole enterprise.

By the 2015 election it is at least possible that there will be socialist governments in France and in Germany- and a much better result for European socialists in the 2014 European Parliament elections. Our European priority now should surely be to work out a credible socialist platform for government with growth, the greening of Europe’s economy, innovation and research at its centre, and a new Neighbourhood policy which should be the signal that Europe aligns itself with democratic change, not with propping up geriatric, nepotistic, corrupt and authoritarian regimes.

Now that would be a positive European agenda and much preferable to the squalid manoeuvre of a backward-looking referendum which would almost certainly backfire. The leadership should get a grip on this apology for an idea and kill it stone-dead.

Julian Priestley
Waterloo, 23 February 2011