When Clegg supported an EU referendum

The Lib Dem leader was in favour of an in/out referendum before he was against one.

In a desperate attempt to dissuade Tory MPs from voting in favour of a referendum on EU membership next Monday, William Hague takes to the pages of the Telegraph today. The great eurosceptic writes:

As a Conservative, I want to bring powers back from Europe, as we set out in our election manifesto. But a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, especially at this time of profound economic uncertainty, is not the answer.

It's noteworthy that all three of the main parties are now ordering their MPs to vote against the Commons motion (currently supported by 86 MPs). But here's an inconvenient truth: one of them previously supported an in/out referendum. In their 2010 election manifesto, the Lib Dems called for a national vote on Britain's EU membership. Here's the pledge in full:

The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in / out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.

And here's the text of the Commons motion:

That this House calls upon the Government to introduce a Bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the United Kingdom should

(a) remain a member of the European Union on the current terms;

(b) leave the European Union; or

(c) re-negotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and co-operation.

True, the Lib Dem pledge contains a notable caveat ("the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change") but as the Guardian's Nicholas Watt notes, that didn't stop Clegg walking out of the Commons on 26 February 2008 when the then speaker, Michael Martin, refused to call a Lib Dem amendment demanding a referendum. After Ed Davey (then the party's foreign affairs spokesman) was expelled from the chamber, Clegg said:

I share the dismay of [Ed Davey]. What guidance can [the deputy speaker] give me on how we can secure - if not today, at some point during the remaining stages of the Bill - the opportunity to debate the issue that many members want debated and many members of the public want debated: our future membership of the EU?

Davey's words were even more striking:

Will the chair reconsider the decision not to select the Liberal Democrat amendment for a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU? That is the question that goes to the heart of the debate before the House. That is the debate that people want to hear. We are being gagged, Sir.

Like Keynes, the Lib Dems can argue that when the facts change, they change their mind. The holding of a referendum on Britain's EU membership is not a credible response to the current crisis. But Clegg's latest U-turn will only increase his reputation for inconsistency.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.