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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.