What Ed Miliband can learn from Harold Wilson about an EU referendum

It is a question of when, not if, Miliband will offer an EU referendum. Here's what he can learn from his predecessor-but-seven.

Ed Miliband can perhaps be forgiven for his reluctance to leap in and commit a Labour government to holding an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. After all, in a speech to the CBI last November he warned that fellow EU countries are "deeply concerned" because they sense Britain is "heading to the departure lounge". But realpolitik now makes it matter of when and how he follows David Cameron’s lead in calling for a referendum, not if.

When that moment comes, he could do worse than to learn a thing or two from his predecessor-but-seven, Harold Wilson. As prime minister, Wilson did what Cameron now promises to do: renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership and then hold a referendum on the outcome. Like Cameron today, his referendum was about fudging internal party divisions as he took a seemingly outrageous chance with the country’s future strategic interests. But Wilson – who won more general elections (four) than any other 20th century prime minister – was no slouch when it came to campaigning and his approach to the 1975 referendum bears a number of useful lessons for Miliband now.

1. A referendum can be cathartic. In his 1976 book The Governance of Britain, Wilson wrote that the referendum "ended once and for all the previous doubts about the support of the British people for membership of the European Community." It’s a high-wire act, but the potential reward for winning a referendum on Europe could be to bring to an end to decades of sniping and foot-dragging about Europe. And it would set up Ed as a leader prepared to lead boldly.

2. Hold a vote quickly. Wilson’s famous dictum that "a week is a long time in politics is especially insightful when it comes to holding referendums. It is wise to move quickly before other problem sget in the way and the vote becomes a stick to beat a mid-term government. The 1975 referendum was held just nine months after the October 1974 General Election on 6 June.

3. A win is a win: don’t set a threshold for support or turnout. The 1975 referendum was passed with 67 per cent support on a 65 per cent turnout. However Labour’s disastrous decision just four years later to impose a condition that 40 per cent of Scotland's total registered electorate had to vote in favour during the referendum on a Scottish parliamentsaw the vote fall short (just 52 per cent voted yes on a 64 per cent turnout). This precipitated the collapse of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government.

4. Public opinion will shift. Just as now, a majority of people in 1975 were sceptical about European membership at the start of the referendum campaign. But as Peter Kellner points out, now, as in 1975, opinion "is not completely fixed"; with the renegotiated terms providing a potentially useful new element which can be used to undermine existing hostility.

5. Labour is more united now than it was then. A referendum is often a time for friends to agree to disagree. Wilson suspended the cabinet’s collective responsibility courtesy of an "agreement to differ". He had huge political figures like Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Barbara Castle ranged against him and much of the trade union movement hostile to Europe. Miliband is far more fortunate; divisions within the Labour tribe about Europe are puny compared to those confronting Wilson in the 1970s. Miliband’s problem is not about getting colleagues to vote yes, but how to keep them aligned as he choreographs a change of policy to now support a referendum.

6. A referendum forces the political centre ground to co-operate. Wilson, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Jim Callaghan – the big beasts of the Labour government – were united in favour of a 'yes' vote in 1975. As were much of the Conservative and Liberal parties. Indeed, one opposition figure was particularly forthright: "If we fail and the British people vote ‘no’ to the European Community, they will read how there was a defeat for co-operation between nations…They will read how extremism won over commonsense."

So said Margaret Thatcher.

Harold Wilson's 1975 referendum on Britain's EEC membership ended in a 67-33 vote in favour of staying in.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.