In last Sunday’s Observer, we were told that Ed Miliband is being urged to pledge an ‘in-or-out’ referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union should Labour be elected in the 2015 General Election.
It is clear from this article, and other noises off (by Lord Mandelson, for example) that Labour Party opinion is being prepared for a change in direction, just months after Labour rejected the idea of such a referendum in a House of Commons vote.
It is ‘clever politics’, we are told. (For fans of political irregular verbs, I practise clever politics; you are opportunistic.) My view is that Labour is playing with fire. We do not want the most likely outcome (withdrawal), and while there may be some initial advantage in being the first to commit to such a referendum, the Conservatives, under pressure from the UK Independence Party, could do nothing but follow suit – eliminating that advantage.
If Labour did win in 2015, what next? There would be a distracting and unnecessary referendum. The Labour Party would be divided. The referendum would, based on current opinions, be lost. The government would lose credibility and authority just months after it had won an election. Instead, Labour should be working with its Socialist colleagues to develop an effective vision for Europe – a way-out of the dead-end into which the austerity-fetishists have driven us.
There are also non-partisan arguments against a referendum on EU membership. We are told that a plebiscite will ‘settle this issue once and for all’. This is nonsense. A narrow victory for the ‘pro-EU’ campaign – the only type of victory supporters of EU membership could possibly imagine at this stage – is more likely to give succour to the UKIP and its allies. The question will continue to be part of public discourse and we could well see a further referendum after the 2020 election. If anyone thinks Nigel Farage or Daniel Hannan will say, ‘Well, we gave it a good shot but the people have spoken and that’s it for another generation’ then they are seriously deluded.
And that is not to mention the many good reasons to oppose referendums on principle. They can be dangerous, distilling complex political debates into bumper-sticker-friendly yes-or-no arguments. Their results are misleading and without nuance. Options A and B may be on the ballot paper, but options C and D may be preferable to both. The 1999 referendum in Australia on maintaining the Queen as the Head of State is a case in point: polls showed that the majority of Australians wanted a republic – but they did not want the type of republic offered in the referendum. In the case of a vote on EU membership, people are being asked to take it or leave it – not to express discontent with particular parts of the European project and support for others, a position that probably reflects the majority view.
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