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Friday, July 05, 2013

EU Referendum: Now a question of when not if?

Today’s Commons debate on whether to hold an EU referendum in 2017 – brought forward by James Wharton MP through a so-called private members bill - was interesting as much for what was said as for what was not.

As expected, Conservative MPs came out in droves to proclaim their commitment to an in/out referendum if re-elected. Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander criticised 2017 as “an arbitrary date”, although he yet again appeared not to categorically rule out an EU referendum under a Labour government. So that door is still left ajar. He also reiterated Labour’s commitment to EU reform, proving how entrenched this concept now is across the political spectrum.

Interventions during the debate showed that within the Labour Party there is now a spectrum of opinion on the EU referendum, although in fairness Labour and Lib Dem participation was limited (see picture). There are those against a referendum because of a long held attachment to the EU; those like Keith Vaz MP who want the UK to remain an EU member but also want a referendum to strengthen democratic legitimacy; and those, like Kate Hoey or Dennis Skinner who have long been opposed to the EU and want the UK to leave altogether. In addition, there are many on the Labour benches who see the entire issue as a valuable party-political stick with which to beat the Conservatives.

Labour has so far managed to avoid a divisive public debate on the issue but with the Conservatives – who now appear relatively united – having put them on the spot, a familiar question reappears: if polls are close leading up to the 2015 general election, will Labour gamble on being seen as the ‘pro-status quo anti-referendum party’ – or will it pull the trigger?

Clearly, there are powerful voices within the Labour party who are feeling increasingly worried about such a prospect. So what will the endgame look like? Several different scenarios are emerging:

Tory majority: If the Conservatives win the next election outright it is now inconceivable they would avoid a referendum.

Continuity of Tory-Lib Dem coalition: Lib Dems are unlikely to promise a referendum in 2017 so the question would then become whether David Cameron insists on a referendum as a the price for a renewal of the Coalition. Cameron has been less than clear on this point. He has said “if I am Prime Minister” there will be a referendum, but the official write up says “if a Conservative Government is elected in 2015, they would... hold an in-out referendum to let the British public decide.” Would Nick Clegg block it (assuming he is even still the leader then).

Tory minority government: With a more stable economy both the Tories and Lib Dems could decide not to formally renew the coalition, with the former instead ruling as a minority government. Depending on the exact parliamentary arithmetic, a Tory referendum in 2017 could gain sufficient support from Labour and Lib Dem rebels and Northern Irish MPs.

No Labour pledge followed by a Labour victory: Only chance for a referendum would be if the “referendum lock” is triggered as part of an EU treaty change that transfers powers from the UK to Brussels – Labour has pledged to keep the lock in place. Perhaps they can somehow elevate that into an In/out referendum, and get around the pickle they’re in that way (there’s talk about this in Labour circles).

No Labour pledge followed by a Lib-Lab coalition: As previous scenario – both Labour and Lib Dems are in favour of the referendum lock.

Labour pledge followed by Labour majority: Question would then be on what terms (a straight In/Out vote or something else) and when (immediately after the election or mid-term). 

Labour pledge followed by a Lib-Lab coalition: That would depend on the Lib Dems and whether Labour sees it as a deal breaker. It’s easier to Labour ditching the referendum pledge in coalition negotiations than the Tories. However, a Lib-Lab Coalition Government might end up with a referendum anyway due to cross-party backbench cooperation by Labour and Conservative MPs.

Labour throws back the ball in Tories’ court: As has been floated, Labour could seek to amend James Wharton’s bill, to suggest a referendum before 2017 – some have floated 2014, at the same time as the European elections. This would be extremely awkward for Tory MPs, many of whom would feel obliged to vote for such an amendment so as not to be seen as anti-referendum. The Tories are also vulnerable to criticism that 2014 is no less of an arbitrary date than is 2017 (are we confident that all the changes in Europe and in the UK-EU relationship will have taken place by 2017 so the British public would have the choice of two clear alternatives?)

Regardless, there was a feeling when listening to today’s debate that a referendum on Europe is now not a matter of if – but when. Disappointingly, the debate largely ducked a question just as fundamental as the referendum debate itself: whoever wins the next election will have a series of European challenges in its intray: a Europe that desperately needs reform, a changing Eurozone with bailout programs running out, a series of pending EU court cases, potential treaty changes and more.

These challenges transcend party politics.

EU referendum: So who's cup of tea will it be?


Denis Cooper said...

As none of the "pledges" can be enforced in law, and as those making them are totally untrustworthy, it follows that none of them are worth much.

"Tory majority: If the Conservatives win the next election outright it is now inconceivable they would avoid a referendum."

On the contrary, it is perfectly conceivable that Cameron would wriggle out a referendum, and the Tory MPs would allow him to do that, and there would be nothing anybody could do about it until the next election when it would be too late.
" ... if the “referendum lock” is triggered ... Labour has pledged to keep the lock in place."

But just like the Tory leaders the Labour leaders are incorrigible liars, the "referendum lock" law is not entrenched against normal repeal - the Tory leaders refused to countenance any form of entrenchment when that was suggested - and if the "referendum lock" was getting in their way they would get it repealed, as indeed would the Tory leaders.

Rik said...

Labour is bringing itself in a more and more difficult position. It needs to come up with a clear EU and referendum policy and quick.
With 60-80% of the electorate wanting a referendum at one time it is hard to see how that can be avoided. Directly or indirectly it simply is very likely to happen. Indirectly by eg a normal election.

Anyway it is hard to see that Labour can continue without a policy on this. Simply makes them look no-government material. Already an issue.
Imho a referendum looks unavoidable so they better give in and asap, in order to reduce electoral damage.
Problem being (one of the major ones at least) that the 2017 set up looks by far the best if you want to keep voters happy; remain in the EU; and reform the thing. It simply looks they are looking for a better alternative (but there isnot). How can you go for an earlier referendum in/out if most people want to try a reneg first? Anyway if it would be an in after a reneg or a failed reneg the thing would play up again.
Simply looks that they have to swallow the turd of not agreeing with Cameron when he came up with this plan and the sooner the better. Hard to see them going into election time with the chance that 80% (but very likely at least 60%) of the electorate wants one.

In that respect 2017 also doesnot look like an arbitrary date. You need time to make an inventory and to reneg (plus 'coalition' difficulties until 2015), but on the other hand you cannot postpone a referendum indefinitely. This looks like the best balance between those 2. Looks like something that can be explained.

Difficult to speculate over the post-election cabinet. A lot is very likely to happen this term. Labour has to state clearly where they stand on important issues. Ed has been allowed to fly under the radar. But it looks those days are gone. If the current media events are a guide for that.
Conservatives have gone in the attack (likely the wisest thing to do show them Ed is a weak candidate).
-On the unions (read the structurally most divisive issue in Labour is if it is a party for the workers/contributors or the party for the free-loaders). An issue that could split the party. Especially when the money is running out. Probably only better the Conservatives focus more on the potential split than fully on the unions.
-Budget. Simply by keep asking how he will pay for all those nice and especially fair plans.

My guess is that Ed will crack if put under constant pressure. Not personally but in the all important eye of the voter. One of the unique selling points of the Tories is that their leader simply seems much better PM-material than the one the opposition came up with.

John McClane said...

'Disappointingly, the debate largely ducked a question just as fundamental as the referendum debate itself:...'

Not disappointingly, but unsurprisingly.

The debate was on a (not 'so-called' but actually)Private Member's Bill to hold a referendum on membership of the EU. No other issues were up for discussion.

'These challenges transcend party politics'.

They clearly don't. Otherwise Clegg and Miliband wouldn't have advised their MPs to be absent for the debate.

John McClane said...

'Disappointingly, the debate largely ducked a question just as fundamental as the referendum debate itself:...'

Not disappointingly, but unsurprisingly.

The debate was on a (not 'so-called' but actually)Private Member's Bill to hold a referendum on membership of the EU. No other issues were up for discussion.

'These challenges transcend party politics'.

They clearly don't. Otherwise Clegg and Miliband wouldn't have advised their MPs to be absent for the debate.

Rik said...

@John McClane1
These are long term strategic decisions for the UK. All parties will possibly have to face them at least when the aspire to be part of government one day.

Simply seems nearly impossible to avoid. And if you avoid it directly as a political party it is very likely to come and hunt you lateron. it looks like 60 to 80% of Britains demand one. That percentage also looks pretty stable. And it looks clear that a lot of people let the EU issue determine their voting behaviour (just see the rise of UKip).

If no direct referendum will take place it likely will play as an indirect one in next elections. Simply be changing the voter behaviour of the electorate.
As far as Labour is concerned, the EU issue played mainly for the Conservatives, but the referendum issue looks to be playing mainly for Labour. They are the ones opposing it.
Imho it would be the by far best strategy for Labour simply acknowledge that it is unavoidable that something will have to happen and come up with something similar as Cameron did.

Now they try to win points by coming up with 'something different', but that is unlikely to work. Having a referendum close by will mean (seen the polls) a 50/50 chance of an exit. A positive result on a reneg will substantially decrease that chance. While Labour doesnot want an exit. Simply would be not coherent.

Anyway it is hard to see that Ed will not come up under pressure on this. He has been flying under the radar until now, but those days look over. And it is hard to see that he will come out stronger of that. So expect a close race at the election. Much closer than the polls now indicate. In such a climate it is difficult to see Ed will be going aginst the will of the people (at least close before they have to vote).

Bad for business is complete nonsense. No referendum will keep hanging above the markets for a much loner time. And if it is coming up at the most unconvenient time it will likely lead to all sort of unmanageable situations. Also in that respect a referendum has no real disadvantages. It has probably in the eyes of a lot of people compared to a clean In. But that is not an alternative on the table. If pushed away as said it will keep playing up.

Rik said...



Simply have to take place whatever government is in charge. The present situation is simply unsustainable.
UKip might fade away. However looking at Europe when politicl parties got to this level of support the are more likely to stay than to leave. Anyway seen the polls and the fact that Europe will be 'bad news' because of the Euro, the Ukip winning EP elections simply looks much more likely.
It is clear from polls that at present (and the last couple of years) the majority of the population in the UK is EU negative. With as only game changer Cameron's reneg plan.
Trend is also clearly South and with the Euro crisis almost certainly going on for a few years more that is unlikely to be broken.

From the polls it also appears that a majority is willing to give the EU a second chance and it also is clear that a majority wants to give Cameron time for that.

Seen in this context a reneg simply has to take place (under any government) only alternative is simply the voter in a referendum or otherwise simply saying: 'enough is enough'.
Any party that does something else is most likely to be butchered in the next election or in a referendum.
Labour practically cannot reverse Cameron's strategy. Would kill them in the ballot box.

Btw reneg from a harder position (that the alternative is exit) is much more likely to succeed than going 'cap in hand'. As basically Ed and Co want to do. You have nothing to offer. We want a lot of things and if we donot get them nothing will happen, is no negotiation strategy.

How to avoid this coming up continuously?
I would say the only option is a clear referendum? Yes or No and all cards on the table. If you get a majority In that way you can tell UKip Talibans to get lost: the people have spoken. If the referendum sucks on this point it is far more likley to come up again.

So in a nutshell:
Reneg simply seems unavoidable. Also for Labour if they form a next government. A referendum question is nearly impossible to avoid. Ed might not like that but he should move to another country as that is the situation in the UK.

It is of the utmost importance for the UKs economy to handle this properly. Therefor it simply looks highly unPMish the way Labour is behaving now. Simply looking to score an easy point aganst the Tories iso looking at the UKs national interests.
Next to having no clear policy views on this, they simply look weak.
They are dodging the issue. The main reasons for not showing up and the whole thing in general are: getting a cheap shot and donot want to be seen as anti referendum (as they know it is unpopular). Simply showing they are no government material.

Which in itself is a crap marketing strategy. As the 'market' in general and potential Labour voters clearly see that as a very weak point in Labour's leader. They should work on it as it will be likely a party-killer in next election not bring it agin under the people's attention.

ayman khlifat said...

Thank you so much .

Average Englishman said...

Ref @ Dennis Cooper
I totally agree. I don't trust any of our so called 'political elite' to be honest with the electorate.

This is one of the worst legacies of Tony B. Liar. For all his sins, Tony is seen by the current crew as a very successful politician and as Parliament is stuffed with professional politicians they seem to now think that deceiving the plebs who vote for them is the right way to go about their business. That is, it is fine and proper to achieve the political ends one has decided upon by any means possible, including deceipt on a daily basis. This approach is totally undemocratic and is typical of the European elite in charge at Brussels; 'we are very clever people and we therefore know what is best for you plebs, so just love us and do what we say and oh... buy me a new Merc whilst you are at it. Also, if my very clever policies mean that half of you under the age of 25 have no jobs and no hope well, er, er, er, don't worry, we'll work on that soon over a nice bottle of Chablis.'

I am not sure that there are words in the English language that are adequate to describe my view of these people; 'contempt' really doesn't seem adequate.

They make Nigel Farage look like Jesus Christ in comparison.

Anonymous said...

We can expect a fudge on the referendum just like we got on the constitution a small change will happen it will be lauded as a huge one and the referendum declared unnecessary. The best way to ensure it is to vote UKIP and get the only party that is truly honest about the situation.

Anonymous said...

"These challenges transcend party politics."

Again, the Eurofascist Open Europe sells the line that there is a broad diversity of political "Parties" in the UK.

In fact, and as OE knows, there is little diversity of politics in the UK.

Specifically, there is the Liblabcon/EUSSR Party, which is determined to keep the UK trapped in the EUSSR Volker kerker.

And there is Ukip, which is determined to free the UK from EUSSR tyranny and shackles.

Every day that passes reveals Open Europe for what it is: a pro EUSSR/Eurofascist propaganda mill.