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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Meet the man forcing the Government to reveal its plans for Brexit

Grahame Pigney hopes to "peel away" the secrecy of negotiations. 

Not so long ago, the UK Government was blissfully unaware of Grahame Pigney, a British man living in semi-retirement, in France. But then came Brexit. 

Pigney, who had been campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU, was devastated. But after a few days, he picked himself up and started monitoring the news. He was alarmed to discover the Government thought it could trigger Article 50 without the express permission of Parliament. 

He wasn’t alone. Gina Miller, an investor, was equally incensed and decided to take the Government to court. Pigney (pictured below) set up a crowdfunding campaign to support the case, The People’s Challenge. So far, the campaign has raised more than £100,000. 

This week, the campaign scored its first major victory, when a judge overruled the Government’s attempts to keep its legal defence secret. The case itself will be held in October. 

At a time when the minister for Brexit, David Davis, can only say it means “leaving the EU”, the defence sheds some light on the Government’s thinking. 

For example, it is clear that despite suggestions that Article 50 will be triggered in early 2017, the Government could be easily persuaded to shift the date: 

"The appropriate point at which to issue the notification under Article 50 is a matter of high, if not the highest, policy; a polycentric decision based upon a multitude of domestic and foreign policy and political concerns for which the expertise of Ministers and their officials are particularly well suited an the Courts ill-suited.”

It is also, despite Theresa May’s trips to Scotland, not a power that the Government is willing to share. In response to Pigney’s argument that triggering Article 50 without parliamentary approval impinges on Scotland’s separate body of law, it stated bluntly: “The conduct of foreign relations is a matter expressly reserved such that the devolved legislatures have no competence over it.”

Although Pigney is one of the millions of expats left in jeopardy by Brexit, he tells The Staggers he is not worried about his family. 

Instead, he says it is a matter of principle, because Parliament should be sovereign: “I am not a quitter.” 

While Davis argues he cannot reveal any information about Brexit negotiations without jeopardising them, Pigney thinks the Brexiteers simply “haven’t got anything”. 

A former union negotiator, he understands why Davis doesn’t want to reveal the details, but finds the idea of not even discussing the final goals is baffling: “When I was a union member, we wouldn’t tell them how everything was going but you did agree what the targets were that you were going for.”

He said: “The significance of what happened is we were able to peel away a layer of Government secrecy. One of the things that has characterised this Government is they want to keep everything secret.”