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Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Labour and ‘Europe’: substance or party politics?

Open Europe has just returned from holding two fringe events at the Labour Party Conference (write ups of these to follow here), an occasion that can be a useful barometer for assessing opinion within the party.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander used our joint event with BNE and CER to state that “there is almost total unanimity for Britain’s continued membership in the European Union.” And, though Alexander made several valid points (including the Tories' poor handling of the announcement of the 2014 EU JHA block opt-out) it's clear that in large part, Europe simply remains a stick with which to beat the Tories. Shadow Cabinet Minister Jim Murphy’s suggestion that, “at some point, there will have to be a referendum on the EU” would seemingly fall into that category. Mr Murphy added "My preference would be an in-or-out referendum when the time comes” and that “almost everyone” in the Labour Party would campaign to stay in the EU, “because it is good for our economy and good for Britain”.

It must be extremely tempting for Labour to go for that in / out referendum and witness the Tories tearing themselves apart (or so the thinking goes). But a) that's hardly a noble motive for putting a hugely important issue to the people (Labour likes to talk about putting national interest before party) and b) it would be an absolutely massive gamble: if held now, the "in" side would almost certainly win, but in 2015-16, all kinds of unpredictable stuff could have happened in Europe that would change the equation. The dropping popularity of Hollande and Rajoy, just months after entering office, is a reminder that 'political honeymoons' are shortlived in European politics these days. Therefore, even calling a referendum right after being elected is no guarantee.

There was much talk of lost ‘influence’ at the conference but little of substance to suggest how Labour’s approach would be different to the current government on the fundamental issues such as the fiscal treaty (would the party opposed to 'mindless austerity' really want to sign a treaty enshrining the doctrine?), the EU budget (Labour recognise the need for reform as do the Lib Dems and the Conservatives), and banking union (Although it does not necessary like to admit it, a Labour government would need to go out to bat for the City in Europe).

However, encouragingly, there are some senior figures in the party who are willing to enter into a debate about the future of the EU. Shadow Treasury Minister Chris Leslie told our joint fringe meeting that the tensions between Eurozone-level decision making and national democracy were “at risk of undermining the European settlement.” He added that the Eurozone needed to find an answer to the question of how to “hold accountable those who make executive decisions in the Eurozone.”

He said that the continuing EU budget negotiations were the “next big diplomatic test” for the UK and that he was disappointed that there was not enough focus on the content of the budget – an argument we have made both of the CAP but also the Structural Funds, where a previous Labour Government policy would actually save the UK around £4bn over the budget period and better focus the remaining EU funds. In contrast, the current government has taken a somewhat less assertive approach (contrary to popular belief).


Average Englishman said...

You say that "If a referendum were held now the "in" side would almost certainly win".

Where on earth are you getting that information from? It is certainly not my experience. The people I speak to from all walks of life now understand better than before what the EU is all about, are more than fed up with taking orders from Brussels and would be very happy to leave the EU thank you very much.

Labour Party politicians that choose to ignore the wishes of their electorate do so at their peril. These are the same wonks who used to say what a wonderful idea the Euro would be for the UK (and some amazingly still do) but as per the guys in Brussels, they will sooner or later have to take their orders from the public. In the UK, I am confident that a majority now want OUT and that this majority will only grow.

The Labour politicos seem to think that a win at the next election is a foregone conclusion but they are wrong. If they do not listen to what their voters want; including disengagement from the EU then they will lose votes and also lose power.

Rollo said...

Extraordianry that, in a democracy, there can be unanimity in favour of something that the people they represent are greatly against. This arrogance of the political class has the ability to destroy democracy, in the way that Hitler or Stalin failed to do.

Denis Cooper said...

Average Englishman, a year or two before the 1975 referendum there was a 2:1 majority saying they were in favour of leaving, but by dint of an intense one-sided deceitful scaremongering propaganda blitz that was turned round to a 2:1 majority voting to stay in. Irrespective of the merits of the proposal, we saw much the same thing happen more recently with the AV referendum, with the most outrageous lies being propagated and even embroidered by the mass media. Do not expect that any of the national newspapers would support the campaign to leave the EU, with the possible exception of the Express, and do not expect that TV and radio would be even-handed; do not expect that the Electoral Commission would ensure a fair referendum campaign; do expect that all three main political parties and most of the minor parties, and almost all the trade unions, and the business and employers' organisations, and many other "civil society" organisations, and even the churches, would all be on the other side from you.

Denis Cooper said...

It's just party politics, as it is with the Tory party; in both cases those in control of the party are strongly in favour of the EU and strongly against ever holding any kind of referendum on it.

Open Europe blog team said...

Hi Average Englishman,

On the question of the outcome of an in/out referendum. We agree with Denis the 'in' side is likely to win. There has not yet been a campaign where the cost/benefits of the ‘in’ and the ‘out’ option have be spelt out in detail. The ‘in’ option has the advantage of being the quantifiable status quo and the proponents of the ‘out’ option would need to spell out exactly how it would work.

Peter Lilley MP made the following observation in Parliament recently:

“Some of my colleagues think the answer is an in/out referendum, which they see as a “get out of jail free card”. It is not. It is wrong in principle to pose abstract questions to the electorate, but it is also unwise in practice. A detailed study of every referendum since the second world war, where there is opinion poll data, shows that on average there is a 17% swing back in favour of the status quo. I remind my hon. Friends that that means one has to start with a 34% lead for change to have a 50% chance of winning. If we start from the present position, with roughly half of people being in favour of leaving and a third in favour of staying, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire said, the idea that we would automatically win a referendum and that a majority would vote for “out” is probably a mistake. What we should do and what we ought to do in constitutional principle is negotiate a new deal. That is why we elect Parliaments and elect Governments, and we should elect a Parliament committed to doing that.”


Rik said...

Who will win next elections is imho still in the stars. The Conservatives have not really a strong team, the economy is against them and they move from one scandal to the next. Labour however looks hardly better, their team especially their leader looks even weaker than the other side. Plus you donot need to have that much of a brain to see that their proposed solutions were roughly the reason that it is the mess it is now.

Anyway voters in general are hardly happy with the existing parties and as Europe shows polls sometimes move al over the place.
So basically all is still open.

Europe is a difficult issue. However it looks nearly sure that we will have several years with negative to very negative EU-headlines and combined with their usual mingling with local affairs and by pretty irritating people as well and a lot of it. Plus an economy that not will start running. So most likely the trend will be anti-EU and very likely considerably.

Anyway this issue is on the agenda whether one likes it or not and there are 2 possibilities: rearrange UK/EU relations or risk via an in/out referendum an immediate exit. The more pro-EU you might be the first one will be the preferred option.
You can hardly do wrong with that only when you mess up the negotiations.
However to get the best results (in the reneg which gives the most chance of a stay in referendum result) it is essential that the reneg is started asap as the treaty has to be changed substantially anyway (ECB, Grexit,Fiscal compact).

Rik said...

@OE team
You forget some important issues. And look much too rational/logic at things imho.

1. This is all highly technical and an awful lot of it. Simply the voter (at least a lot of them) will likely decide mainly on emotion. Which is not good news for the in-camp. Emotion is against EU, it simply stinks and is highly uncool.
2. The in-camp has tried to sell it in the last 3 countries with referenda and completely failed in that.
The problem being EU politicians simply cannot (and shouldnot) sell it (if you have half a brain). They are simply too unpopular. Anything they sell will fail. The new Golf advertised by people like Barosso will likely not sell better than the latest Aston Martin. However these people donot have any idea how they stand in the market so will try it anyway and simply worsen the result.
3. Local politicians might back off a bit, you donot want to be seen supporting a lost cause. Anyway the credibility of local politicians all over Europe not only in the UK is at a record low.
Like in France and Holland it might simply be used to make a statement against local politics.
4. Economy will be bad the next couple of years. Likely a lot will be blaimed on the EU. Which simply doesnot make it the political iPod.
5. The EU simply doesnot have its house in order and very likely as said earlier we will see one negative headline after the other in that respect.

This is the worst time (in a couple of years) for the EU to have a referendum on it in the UK. And the trend at the moment looks very negative for them.

Throw in the fact that the outs (who look more determined) might go massively to the ballotboxes and the ins might not.
Imho everything can happen.

Therefor in order to manage the situation immediate action is required. And imho by your Dave as very likely the majority of his (potential) voters would rather leave if not much harm would be done. Probably after scandal 18739 he can use something that actually works positive with his voters.

Furthermore imho it is very naive to think the issue will be off the aganda when a referendum will be an in. This has everything in it to become the UKs Quebec and likely an 'in' with no proper adjustments will have the question coming up with every transfer of powers to Brussels. Also in that respect it should now be managed properly and for the longer term. So it really gets of the agenda which is imho only possible with a proper reneg result.

Average Englishman said...

Rik is right. This is not just a pros and cons balance sheet issue but one of raw emotion and it will not go away. You seem to have no real idea just how strongly many people feel about this issue. Like many other people I want my country back and the more that the UK and EU politicians flout the wishes of the people the more likely that an 'out' vote will be successful; if not in the short term then definitely in the long term.

If a fairly competed referendum does not occur before more and yet more power is taken by our unelected 'friends' in Brussels then I fully expect that the people of the UK will have to take their freedom back in due course 'Arab Spring' style. I thought I was trying to get the UK out of the EUSSR to stop my grand children (if and when they arrive) having to fight (literally) for their freedom in the future but things are moving more quickly than I expected and it may well be me out in the street protesting or in prison as a result.

Still for the moment, democracy has a chance to prevail and I hope it will. I take heart from the only referendums on this matter that have taken place in the UK of late, which have been run by 'The People's Pledge'; three polls and three 'out' votes, each with a number of voters greater than voted in the last Council elections in the boroughs concerned.

I am sure that you think that I am being overly dramatic and that I am not representative of the majority. Perhaps today I am but more people are joining my view every day; of that I have no doubt and if UK politicians choose to ignore their voters they will pay the price at the ballot box. You said the same thing yourselves in another blog entry recently regarding "what keeps the folks in Brussels and Berlin awake at night" and I suspect that the folks in mainland Europe will take the lead to get their freedom back well before it becomes a necessity in the UK.

Denis Cooper said...

Average Englishman,

The constituency referendums run by the People's Pledge don't ask whether we should leave the EU, they only ask whether there should be a referendum on whether we should leave the EU.

Some of those pressing for an "in-out" referendum, including some of those in the People's Pledge, are europhiles who believe they would win such a referendum, and they may well be right.

I'm old enough and cynical enough to very much doubt that the eurofanatic Keith Vaz supports holding an "in-out" referendum as a matter of principle; on the contrary, he's content to have opponents of the EU enticed into what he sees as a trap where they can be so emphatically defeated that the issue could be regarded as settled for at least another generation.

According to the opinion poll mentioned here in July:


31% said they would vote to stay in the EU, while 48% said they would vote to leave; but it would only need the remaining undecided 21% to settle on "in" to get an overall vote to stay in; and that's before making any allowance for some of the 48% being terrorised into changing their minds, as they certainly would be.

You refer to "a fairly competed referendum" - well, you can forget that, and instead expect that the dice would be very heavily loaded against the "out" side, just as they were in 1975.

In connection with which:

"Finally YouGov asked how people would vote if the government renegoiated British membership and then David Cameron recommended a yes vote (basically the equivalent of what Harold Wilson did in 1975) – in those circumstances 42% say they would vote to stay in, 34% said they would vote to leave."

Rik said...

@Denis Cooper
Why do you think a referendum has not been held. For several reasons of course, but the main one is that the Euro-in crew simply is too scared to lose it.

Therefor there is as much power in the threat of having a referendum as in a referendum itself. The in-side simply is of the opinion that they can not afford a referendum.
Well it might take a few more days or weeks, but they will not be far from the point that they realise that the only way to achieve that longer term is getting something that is a real alternative for getting out. Which is a complete reneg of the UKs relations with the EU (under threat of a referendum which also the EU side cannot afford at the moment).

The threat of a referendum simply means roughly a 50/50 chance of an UK exit. Could be a bit more or less 40/60 or 60/40. The UK-in side think they cannot afford an exit because of trade links etc.. The EU side cannot have the things looking to fall apart in time of the Euro crisis, that will continue for a few more years at least, as markets and voters wil see it as things falling apart. The only option is a reneg that swings alot of UK votes to the inside camp. However seen the history of this very unlikely that a government would get away with a changing the Original forest directive or the keeping Wolffs in the wild or the Van Rompuy Wet Tissue regulation, it has to be something serious.

The Euro-out crowd have basically reversed the proces, without knowing it. First we saw more and more power move to Brussels. Ask till they approve. Now it has become a sort of Quebec, an issue that can and likely will come up every few years if not properly dealt with.

The Conservatives are the key. They will have to start stuff as likley a majority of their voters are outers. And with an alternative and the British lectoral system losing 10-15% of the votes means you are second best and by a few miles. They will have to manage this proces properly and even possibly to their advantage or it will be opposition next election and the end of your Dave's political career. And even Mr Ed could be elected as PM next election. They only should know that it their position. And all points into the direction that they know that.

Denis Cooper said...


It depends which referendum you mean.

In 1972 Heath refused to hold a referendum before taking us into the EEC, and apart from his habitually contemptuous attitude towards ordinary people the reason was that he correctly thought he could get it through Parliament, with help from rebel Labour MPs, but probably he could not get it past the voters in a referendum.

Wilson held a retrospective referendum in 1975 mainly because his Labour party was split from top to bottom on the issue of EEC membership and a referendum seemed to be a way to hold it together, but he made damn sure that he won it.

That referendum was a national disaster, effectively shutting down the issue for nearly two decades, during which period the Single European Act was passed without even being noticed by the general public, let alone prompting calls for a referendum.

It was only when the Maastricht Treaty came along that opponents started to mobilise; Major refused to hold a referendum on it because he knew that he would probably lose it, and it was left to the Labour opposition to promise a referendum on whether to join the euro.

With the focus on the euro the Amsterdam Treaty slipped by almost unnoticed, the Tories obviously not being inclined to call for a referendum on a treaty which they had largely negotiated when they were in government; and it was only in 2001, with the next treaty, the Nice Treaty, that the Tory opposition called for a referendum, which calls were rejected by the Labour government because they could not be sure of winning it.

Then with the EU Constitutional Treaty the Tory opposition led a campaign for a referendum, which the Labour government refused until Blair suddenly did a volte face, for reasons which have never been satisfactorily explained, with the consequence that demands for a French referendum were given added force; the French and the Dutch obliged by knocking it on the head, getting Blair out of holding a referendum which he probably regretted having promised and which he probably would have lost.

When it came back as the Lisbon Treaty Brown was not about to make the same mistake; the Tory opposition duly mounted a long and vociferous but inevitably unsuccessful campaign for a referendum, which they repeatedly said was essential, until November 2009 when the general election was hoving into sight and it ceased to be so essential and Cameron announced his capitulation to avoid trouble when he became Prime Minister.

Since then, Hague has passed his "referendum lock" into law, and made first use of it to block a referendum on the radical EU treaty change agreed on March 25th 2011, but hardly anybody even knows about that because all three main parties supported it and there has been a pretty comprehensive media blackout on it.

As another part of his preparation for government in the autumn of 2009 Cameron quietly let it be known that he didn't favour holding an "in-out" referendum, and while there may be an element of fear that he could lose it there is also the simple fact that the Tories are now in power and at present the leadership sees insufficient party advantage in proposing any kind of referendum on the EU.

There's now a four decade long history of two, in fact three, main political parties playing party political games on this, making insincere calls for referendums they don't really want and hope not to get and trying to back away when there's any real possibility that it might actually happen; events may fall out so that Cameron is pushed into holding one, although I doubt that, and if it was a referendum which put our EU membership at risk then you can expect that like Wilson he'd do everything he could to make sure that he won it.

Rik said...

Lost my original reply for the 4th time today so short.
There will most likley be something it is only upto Cameron to decide what.
-A bogus one, not likley makes him look like an idiot an unelectable.
-In-out, rather not they might vote out he would be stuck with the political fall out.

Only realistic option is on a major reneg.
Also makes him reelectable probably. As it looks now things donot look really well in that respect.
He also has to assure that UKIP voters return. If he puts them on the map, the Conservatives will be second best for at least a decade.

So his best possible option by far is a substantial reneg. For which the time also is right at the other side as the treaty has to be changed.

Problem he has is that referenda have been very unpredictable the last decade or so in Europe and Europe not very popular with voters. Also credibility of mainstream politicains is at an all time low. He cannot risk an in out as the UKs economy would tank with an out. And an in will hardly help the question will come up likley via the UKIP.

My point is he has to manage the situation and by far the best mix gives a substantial change referendum.
-Referendum promise met V.
-Popular by his potential voters V.
-Reduce position UKIP V.
-No economic fall out by EU-exit V.
-Advantages from EU, but limit disadvatages as much as possible V.
-Legacy V.
-Reelection potential V.
It is the only one that ticks all the boxes. It is upto Cameron to manage it into that direction.

Position voters wil change if he puts UKIP on the map. Throw away alot of seats because of the electoral system and voters will mainly come from Cameron's side. He simply cannot take that risk.
And if it is on the map referenda on in and out will be an issue every election as it is a one-topic party.