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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Just you wait – soon fake news will come to football

No point putting out a story saying that Chelsea got stuffed 19-1 by Spurs. Who would believe it, even if Donald Trump tweeted it?

So it is all settled: Cristiano Ronaldo will be arriving at Carlisle United at the end of the month, just before deadline day. It all makes sense. He has fallen in love with a Herdwick sheep, just as Beatrix Potter did, and like her, he is putting his money and energy into helping Cumbria, the land of the Herdwick.

He fell out with his lover in Morocco, despite having a private plane to take him straight from every Real Madrid game to their weekly assignation, the moment this particular Herdwick came into his life. His mother will be coming with him, as well as his son, Cristiano Ronaldo, Jr. They want to bring the boy
up communing with nature, able to roam free, walking among the lakes and fells.

Behind the scenes, his agent has bought up CUFC and half of Cumbria on his behalf, including Sellafield, so it is a wise investment. Clearly CUFC will be promoted this year – just look where they are in the table – then zoom-zoom, up they go, back in the top league, at which point his agent hopes they will be offered megabucks by some half-witted Chinese/Russian/Arab moneybags.

Do you believe all that? It is what we now call in the trade fake news, or post-truth – or, to keep it simple, a total lie, or, to be vulgar, complete bollocks. (I made it up, although a pundit on French TV hinted that he thought the bit about Ronaldo’s friend in Morocco might not be too far-fetched. The stuff about Beatrix Potter loving Herdwicks is kosher.)

Fake news is already the number-one topic in 2017. Just think about all those round robins you got with Christmas cards, filled with fake news, such as grandchildren doing brilliantly at school, Dad’s dahlias winning prizes, while we have just bought a gem in Broadstairs for peanuts.

Fake news is everywhere in the world of politics and economics, business and celebrity gossip, because all the people who really care about such topics are sitting all day on Facebook making it up. And if they can’t be arsed to make it up, they pass on rubbish they know is made up.

Fake news has long been with us. Instead of dropping stuff on the internet, they used to drop it from the skies. I have a copy of a leaflet that the German propaganda machine dropped over our brave lads on the front line during the war. It shows what was happening back in Blighty – handsome US soldiers in bed with the wives and girlfriends of our Tommies stuck at the front.

So does it happen in football? At this time of the year, the tabloids and Sky are obsessed by transfer rumours, or rumours of transfer rumours, working themselves into a frenzy of self-perpetuating excitement, until the final minute of deadline day, when the climax comes at last, uh hum – all over the studio, what a mess.

In Reality, which is where I live, just off the North Circular – no, down a bit, move left, got it – there is no such thing as fake news in football. We are immune from fantasy facts. OK, there is gossip about the main players – will they move or will they not, will they be sued/prosecuted/dropped?

Football is concerned with facts. You have to get more goals than the other team, then you win the game. Fact. Because all the Prem games are live on telly, we millions of supplicant fans can see with our eyes who won. No point putting out a story saying that Chelsea got stuffed 19-1 by Spurs. Who would believe it, even if Donald Trump tweeted it?

I suppose the Russkis could hack into the Sky transmissions, making the ball bounce back out of the goal again, or manipulating the replay so goals get scored from impossible angles, or fiddling the electronic scoreboards.

Hmm, now I think about it, all facts can be fiddled, in this electronic age. The Premier League table could be total fiction. Bring back pigeons. You could trust them for the latest news. Oh, one has just arrived. Ronaldo’s romance  with the Herdwick is off! And so am I. Off to Barbados and Bequia
for two weeks.

Hunter Davies’s latest book is “The Biscuit Girls” (Ebury Press, £6.99)

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge