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An EU referendum: bad for the UK, and bad for Labour

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In 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.

Labour is playing with fire: it does not want the most likely outcome, withdrawal, the initial first-mover advantage would be swiftly eliminated

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 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.

Referendums can be unbalanced: the mainstream of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties would all support EU membership in principle, despite criticisms of some aspects of that membership. The most widely-read organs of the tabloid, mid-market and broadsheet press – the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph – are all likely fall on the other side of the argument.

A referendum becomes less about the question of EU membership and more a caricatured debate between ‘the people’ (represented by millionaire or billionaire press barons, many of whom do not live in the UK) and the ‘political classes’ (the representatives of the people as decided in a general election). That would be a truly ugly battle, open to all kinds of mendacity. A referendum would also be – as they always are – an opportunity to protest against the current government. The question of EU membership is too important to be subjected to that dynamic.

As Lord Norton of Louth (a Tory peer and Professor at the University of Hull) points out, decisions in referendums can be made by a small number of voters (even if a participation threshold is applied). These decisions undermine parliamentary democracy, and allow reactionary voices to prevail (something that should be anathema to Labour).

For example, referendums bind (democratically-elected) governments into taking decisions that they don’t want to take. In California, voters support propositions that have budgetary implications, making it impossible for the State to tackle economic issues. The electorate does not have to be responsible or consistent – they are not held accountable like politicians. Chaos ensues. In addition, referendums mean that those issues not subject to a plebiscite are de-legitimised: people will contest the decision, highlighting its importance, until a referendum is held.

The European Union is complicated – a choice on membership needs sober reflection by our democratically-elected, accountable politicians – not knee-jerk, ill-informed and out-of-context reactions

Finally, the European Union is complicated. Explaining it to friends and family – intelligent people who understand politics – can be hard. Successive governments have not taken the time to explain the EU and its workings, preferring to use it as an Aunt Sally for decisions that they wanted or needed to take anyway. That is a shame, and these governments have contributed, along with a hostile and mendacious press, to the creation of a distorted image of the EU.

The referendum on the Alternative Vote was farcical – both sides distorting facts and focusing on tactics rather than arguments (to such an extent that I spoilt my ballot). But the EU makes AV look a doddle. The range of economic, political and social issues involved, the (necessary) complexity of the decision-making systems, and the diplomatic and geopolitical impact of a decision mean that this issue is best left to those who have the time and skills to give proper consideration to Britain’s EU membership in a global context.

It is a choice that needs sober reflection by our democratically-elected, accountable politicians – not knee-jerk, ill-informed and out-of-context reactions from the man or woman in the street. For that reason, if no other, the Labour hierarchy needs to abandon the referendum idea – and quickly.


Image: CC BY 2.0 Chatham House

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