Labour divisions over EU emerge as MPs launch pro-referendum group

Labour for a Referendum, which has the support of 15 MPs, aims to force Miliband to commit to holding an in/out EU referendum after the next election.

In recent weeks, Ed Miliband has had much fun mocking the Tories' divisions over Europe, but his party now faces some of its own. A new group - Labour for a Referendum - will be launched today with the aim of forcing Miliband to commit to holding an in/out vote on EU membership after the next election. The organisation has the support of 15 Labour MPs, including Keith Vaz (a former Europe minister) and former Northern Ireland spokesman Jim Dowd, three Labour council leaders and more than 50 councillors. It is directed by Labour activist Dominic Moffitt and chaired by John Mills, the founder and chairman of JML and a party donor. 

Vaz said:

I believe that it is the democratic right of the people to make that decision for themselves. I support Labour for a Referendum’s call for the party to support a referendum in our next manifesto.

Dowd said: 

I have been a supporter of this cause for many years and firmly believe the Labour Party must commit to a referendum before the European elections  next year. As the Tories tear themselves apart over this issue, Labour for a Referendum provides the opportunity to unite the party on giving the people a say on our future in the EU.

Its parliamentary supporters are a mixture of the Labour left, who regard the EU as a capitalist club, and the Labour right, who lament its erosion of national sovereignty. Here's the full list: Ronnie Campbell, Rosie Cooper, John Cryer, Ian Davidson, Jim Dowd, Natascha Engel, Frank Field, Roger Godsiff, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, John McDonnell, Austin Mitchell, Grahame Morris, Graham Stringer, Keith Vaz.

Three of these MPs, Cryer, Hoey and Hopkins, have also offered their support for the Tory amendment "regretting" the absence of an EU referendum bill from the Queen's Speech.

After Miliband used his speech at the weekend to Progress to reaffirm his opposition to an EU referendum pledge (at least for now), the group warns that Labour "must not let the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats steal a march on this issue and potentially prevent Ed Miliband standing on the steps of Number 10 in 2015." While most in Labour rightly recognise that the EU is not a priority for voters (just 1 per cent name it as "the most important issue" facing Britain and just 7 per cent name it as one of "the most important issues"), some shadow cabinet ministers are concerned that the party could suffer if Miliband is seen to be denying the people a say.

With this in mind, the group highlights past quotes from Ed Balls and Jon Cruddas suggesting that Labour should consider pledging to hold a referendum if elected. Balls said in February: "As long as we don’t allow ourselves to be caricatured as an anti-referendum party, which we’re not – we’ve absolutely not ruled out a referendum...if we allow ourselves either to be the ‘status quo party’ on Europe, or the ‘anti-referendum party’ on Europe, then we’ve got a problem...I think we would be pretty stupid to allow ourselves to get into either of those positions", while Cruddas, speaking before his appointment as the head of Labour's policy review, said in October 2011: "This is about democracy. This is about respecting the people. Successive generations have not had a say on the European debate. This will fester until a proper open discussion is allowed. If we do not have a real referendum then anger and resentment will grow. We have to be bold and let the people into this conversation."

While Miliband has (rightly, in my view) refused to match Cameron's offer of an in/out referendum, it's worth noting that he has said that Labour would not repeal the coalition's EU "referendum lock" under which a public vote is triggered whenever there is a transfer of powers to Brussels. But today's launch will increase the pressure on him to signal that the promise of a referendum on EU membership is at least under consideration for inclusion in the party's manifesto.

It's worth remembering, of course, that it was once Labour, not the Conservatives, that was most divided over Europe. The 1975 referendum on EEC membership was called by Harold Wilson after his cabinet proved unable to agree a joint position (Wilson subsequently suspended collective ministerial responsibility and allowed ministers to campaign for either side, an option that David Cameron may well be forced to consider) and Michael Foot's support for withdrawal was one of the main causes of the SDP split in 1981. Today's launch is a reminder that those divisions have not entirely been consigned to history. While the Tories are now split between 'inners' and 'outers', in Labour the fundamental europhile-eurosceptic divide persists. 

Labour for a Referendum warns that the party "must not let the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats steal a march on this issue". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.