Sir, According to your report (Observer 20/05/2012) Labour Party opinion is being softened up for a breathtaking U-turn on an in/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership. The method – speeches from former ministers, hints from shadow cabinet members, half-hearted denials from the Leader’s office, guided interpretations of recent front bench appointments- bears the hallmark of the kind of cackhanded triangulation which so discredited Labour in its last years in office.
Tactically, were Labour to make this pledge it would smack of the crudest opportunism; a party which refused a referendum on a Treaty which made significant changes to the institutional arrangements of the EU would now support one on the basic question of membership, a position it had overwhelmingly rejected in the Commons just months ago. Such a somersault by Labour would almost certainly push the Tories into following suit, enabling them to trump UKIP now snapping at their heals, and removing any tactical advantage for the Opposition at the next election. We are told that ‘the party leadership would campaign vigorously in favour of a vote to stay in’ which would imply that a newly elected Labour government early in its term of office while having to grapple with the most acute economic problems would be indulging itself with the distraction of an unneeded referendum which would be perilous, divisive (including within the party) and difficult to win. A ‘no’ vote would throw the country into an economic, political and legal crisis of barely manageable proportions, and would sap any authority of the newly elected administration.
But we are told that democracy demands it, and that a referendum would end ‘dvisive arguments once and for all’. Well, the last referendum did no such thing. Are we to believe that the Murdoch press, the other right-wing media and the saloon bar xenophobes in the Tory party and UKIP would just roll over and stop their clamour for British withdrawal? As to the democratic argument, the Labour Party has traditionally and rightly been sceptical about referendums as the democratic way for taking decisions. Our way, one might say the British way, is for decisions to be taken by Parliament principally because the referendum has so often been the instrument of choice of reaction. Had it been used more widely most of the social and economic reforms of the last fifty years would have been blocked.
As to the sophistry that this ‘would be an opportunity to argue the positive case for membership during a national campaign’ why should anyone believe that a political party which even in easier times regularly funked the European issue would suddenly have the courage to invest political capital in what is now an unpopular cause? Jon Cruddas, who is now co-ordinating Labour policy, believes that a referendum pledge should be made ‘immediately or as quickly as possible.’
In fact, an early call for a referendum would be particularly ill-advised. The euro crisis is inexorably generating a debate on greater European integration with further institutional reforms likely to be on the agenda. A decision to hold a referendum on the existing terms of membership looks particularly bizarre as that relationship seems destined to change. And this mediocre manoeuvre is being launched at a time when European socialists are at last developing new policies to lead Europe out of its current economic and social crisis, spearheaded by a victorious French socialist party which won an election on a straightforward platform of support for a stronger and fairer Europe, and saw off sundry eurosceptics in the process.
Labour’s policymakers would make better use of their time if they worked with fellow socialists in the EU to develop a programme of lifting Europe out of the crisis, rather than playing Russian roulette with Britain’s European future.
Yours sincerely, Julian Priestley