What should Labour’s EU policy be in opposition? What can at the same time be positive about the future, realistic, deliverable, and also decisively different from the coalition’s approach to the EU?

Vital questions.

The starting point seems to be a few high profile events to talk about this stuff – Policy Network (last week) and The Fabians (later this week) are looking at EU matters, and it seems an idea is forming among some of the Euro-stodge-integrationists in Labour Party that the way forward is for Labour to advocate a referendum on in-or-out of the EU. The debate is outlined by Sunder Katwala in an opinion piece for Left Foot Forward (thought LFF was an evidence based blog…?) and cites the views of Wayne David and Keith Vaz on the matter.

The argument – further underlined in December by Sunder of the Fabian Society – is that such a referendum would be more likely to result in a Yes result than any other referendum on an EU matter. So let’s have the vote, we’ll stay in, and into the future the never-ending fight about EU matters in the UK will be no more.

If only this were so.

Firstly, any in-or-out referendum must specify what ‘out’ actually means. Does it mean an arrangement like Norway? Like Switzerland? Like the USA? Just free and tariff-free trade, or more than that – integration lite? And what would the EU institutions, and the other 26 Member States think of this? Without some answers to this point the idea is an abstract concept at best, and the ‘out’ side would have a field day making it look like other countries were punishing the UK.

Which leads to the second issue that gives me headaches about this issue. It strikes me that this idea is gaining ground due to the complete absence of any other valid things to say, and also any valid leadership on UK-EU relations. Blair dithered, Brown was negligent at best, and so over 13 years of Labour the UK population’s feelings about the EU went from bad to worse. Rather that stepping into that void and trying to scope some idea of what a social democratic EU of the future would look like, it instead strikes me that calling for a referendum is the rather easy and appealing way forward instead. It looks democratic, it would divide the Tories, it requires no leadership or difficult advocacy…

Lastly, the in-or-out referendum does not answer the question of the UK’s relationship with the EU for evermore, or indeed even for any lengthy period of time. The EU will continue to evolve, will continue to do a combination of good and bad things, a combination of things that are in the UK’s interests and things that are not, and an ever changing combination of economic and political union. The only way to really put these matters right is to push for greater democratic accountability of the EU’s institutions – federalism essentially – and ensure the individual decisions at EU level are themselves legitimate.

With the caveat that I’m not the biggest fan of referendums in the UK anyway (they are too often used as a substitute for political leadership), I’m not intrinsically opposed to the idea of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. But it sure isn’t a simple, straightforward solution.

Photo: The Laird of Oldham “Flags of England, the United Kingdom, and the European Union” June 7, 2010 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution


  1. “Referendums are not a means of achieving representation of public opinion. Full stop.”

    That is dogma.

    I have not demanded a referendum. Indeed, I have expressed scepticism as to their utility and I have not pretended that they are a perfect or even a very desirable means of running a country. In answer to Jon’s original suggestion, however, I would prefer a referendum as a means of deciding our withdrawal than deeper political integration.

    I do think that the EU is a big issue with the electorate. Yes, when one looks at polling (and I refer here to YouGov polling), one sees the EU languishing towards the bottom of people’s priorities but in second place is usually ‘immigration’, a matter very much connected to our membership of the EU.

    I do not understand your defence of system which we have in the UK when the matter at the heart of our discussion is the subjugation of that system to one which is remote from the British people, which is not democratically-endorsed and which is deeply flawed.

    I think that orderly, well-negotiated and mutually beneficial withdrawal from the EU in its current form, with a commitment to such trade and co-operation as is desirable but without the burden of the supra-state would be a risk well worth taking, My purpose is to make that case in a better than has been done by many others.

  2. Happily, I do not share your dogmatic lack of faith in referenda.

    As you and I can agree, our political parties lack the strength of conviction to approach this matter but that is not, in my view, an argument in favour of continuing to ignore the public.

    I do not agree, however, that a party would be ‘decimated’ by withdrawing from the European Union. The public do not support the UK’s membership of the EU, British people are not European in the sense of self-identification and so reorganising our relationship to be less integrationist would not be offensive in principle. The economic arguments against withdrawal pre-suppose almost complete isolation from the European market, which is not an outcome which either the UK or the EU would tolerate.

  3. Paul Evans

    This – http://sluggerotoole.com/2010/12/13/why-referendums-should-be-banned/ – is not dogma. It’s an argument.

    Parties don’t ‘lack the strength of conviction’ – they lack the willingness to take a life-threatening risk. The public have a mild preference that they don’t like the EU (a conviction that would fade against their convictions on issues like prices/jobs/law&order). They have a heavy preference against parties that do things that threaten economic stability.

    If this was as big an issue as you think it is, a political parties would do the work convincing themselves and the public that the risk is not a big one and a worthwhile one to take.

    It isn’t as big an issue as you think it is. They won’t do that work and they won’t conclude that the risk is low. Demanding a referendum is a way of asking political parties to cut out the kinds of checks-and-balances that democracies have to stop them from doing stupid populist things.

  4. Paul, you have ignored my qualification of the support for a referendum on EU membership: I indicated that if it were the only means of achieving representation of public opinion, then it would have to be tolerated.

    I prefer that to the intolerance of public opinion which has hitherto informed European integration.

    The consequences of withdrawal have not been properly explored. Pro-EU contributors have limited the scenario to one of complete isolation and economic ruin. Just as many Eurosceptics will lie outright, Europhiles are often guilty of lying through omission. As Jon notes in the original piece, we have yet to define what ‘out’ really means.

    Something that Labour could try is an authorising referendum, which puts the question “Do you authorise the UK Government to negotiate withdrawal from the European Union, subject to a second deciding referendum?” It would be horrendously messy and not a path which I would choose but it has the benefits of in-out but which falls short of a damaging ejection.

  5. Paul Evans

    I’m ignoring nothing. Referendums are not a means of achieving representation of public opinion. Full stop.

    The democratic way of deciding this issue is for a party to be prepared to actually withdraw and face the consequences at a subsequent ballot. I don’t believe any political party would risk the electoral decimation that is very likely (though, I’ll agree, not certain) to follow.

    You already have the most democratic means of renegotiating the UK’s relationship to the EU in place.

  6. I am saying that, on an issue of such gravity, if a referendum is the only means by which the democratic will of the people can be realised, then it is a tool which we shall have to tolerate.

    Getting into the British dislike of the EU is another matter and I think that to blame it on the media is overly-simplistic (just as some of those media’s arguments about the EU are over-simplistic). Tellingly, in the last European elections, UKIP did poll second and both first and second places went to parties perceived to be Eurosceptic. The reason why UKIP isn’t returned to the Commons in general elections is because most voters have more immediate considerations and, in part, because parties promise to put the major EU-related issues to referendum. If the euro were not effectively referendum-locked (we hope!), Labour might not have enjoyed some of the support it did in the 1997,2001 and 2005 elections. Similarly, Tony Blair judged that Labour could only retain certain sections of support by promising a referendum on the EU Constitution.

    I am in favour of representative democracy; one of the main objections to the EU is that it does not and cannot represent Britain. As for the death penalty, a majority still favour its re-introduction at the last count (YouGov, September 2010, 51% in favour, 37% opposed and 12% don’t know).

  7. Richard, Labour needs a policy. Any policy would do. As for promising referenda in every manifesto, I do not think after the EU Constitution/ Lisbon Treaty betrayal that anybody would have confidence in such a promise anyway.

    Paul, the much better way is sovereign Parliamentary democracy, but it comes rather unstuck when any party that is elected to govern follows a European policy in government which bears little relation to their stated policy before the election.

  8. Paul Evans

    “on an issue of such gravity, if a referendum is the only means by which the democratic will of the people can be realised”

    So you want issues that you think are big ones to be decided by a spectacularly un-democratic means of making decisions?

    I’ll link to this again: http://sluggerotoole.com/2010/12/13/why-referendums-should-be-banned/

    I doubt if people would vote for the parties that were to pull out of the EU once the consequences were clear. Elections aren’t largely about standing on your ‘pledges’ – they’re about being able to re-stand on your record. That’s why the Tories dress to the right on Europe but then shy away from following their rhetoric through.

  9. Richard Laming

    The referendum in 1975 was supposed to settle things: Tony Benn said “When the British people speak everyone, including members of Parliament, should tremble before their decision and that’s certainly the spirit with which I accept the result of the referendum”, but the campaign to leave the EEC restarted in 1976. Even if the result is YES, it will settle things not for a generation but only for a few months. Labour needs a longer-term policy than this.

  10. Paul Evans

    So what you’re saying is that representative government doesn’t give you the outcome you want, we have to use with a much worse version of democracy instead?

    The British public may have a reflexive dislike of the EU, especially as it’s regularly stoked up by monopolistic media owners who have a lot to lose from coherent media regulation. But the General Will of the British public may be that they’d prefer the EU in its current form to any other alternative on offer. If not, they’d have vote for UKIP, Veritas or James Goldsmith in recent years.

    It’s one of the features of representative democracy: People make trade offs and they don’t always vote for people who share their prejudices (nor would they be happy to be governed by people who share their predudices). That’s why Capital Punishment was abolished long before the public fell out of love with it.

  11. And so the referendum-free way of allowing the public to assert its displeasure with European political integration is to increase it until a federal system is formed?

    I would call that ‘unintelligent design’.

  12. Paul Evans

    There are much better ways of settling issues that Referendums – and as Richard points out, they settle nothing anyway.

  13. Jon, I don’t understand the logic that the answer to the British antipathy towards European political integration is more of it, even under the guise of ‘democratic accountability’.

    The reason that people would like a referendum – which, I agree, are not perfect instruments – is because the politicians cannot be trusted to deliver an EU policy which is consistent either with the wishes or interests of the electorate.

  14. Paul Evans

    I just don’t get this line of thinking at all. Referendums are profoundly dysfunctional ways of making decisions and they are very anti-democratic. If you have a referendum on a particular subject, that isn’t the subject upon which people actually vote.

    It’s a bit like saying that you’ve given up on combating the tide towards Creationism for now…

  15. Henning

    I have to agree with the referendum in this case (though not a friend generally). To me mind this is the only way to resolve this question for Britain. See also http://www.social-europe.eu/2009/06/britains-future-in-the-european-union-stay-in-warts-and-all-or-leave/

  16. Hmmm, I was trying to be conciliatory on the issue of referendums as a means of taking decisions… I think many of the arguments against them have been lost for now in the UK. Sadly.

  17. Paul Evans

    I’ve probably bored you with this one already Jon, but in my view, even proposing referendums should be a capital offence:


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