Clegg is propping up Miliband's EU policy

Both pro-EU, both queasy about a referendum. Who will jump first?

In increments the Liberal Democrat position on an EU referendum is shifting towards full-blown commitment. Nick Clegg has already conceded the point that the big question is "when, not if" the British public is invited to choose how European it wants to be. Today, in the first of what are promised to be monthly press conferences, he clarified the point that a referendum on any future EU treaty would necessarily have to be an in/out vote.

This is an important distinction because, under the 2011 European Union Act (aka the “Sovereignty Act”) a referendum on any substantial new treaty is automatic. Well, actually it is semi-automatic. Ministers can still declare a treaty insubstantial in terms of powers being shared in Brussels and block the plebiscite. Largely for that reason, the Sovereignty Act never satisfied eurosceptic Tory back benchers, although their satisfaction was, of course, David Cameron’s only motive for passing the law in the first place.

Now the Sovereignty Act is serving an entirely different purpose. It is the temporary get out clause for Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband. The Labour leader quietly acquiesced to the measure last year, meaning he too has signed up to a referendum in the event of a major treaty revision. All that remains is for Miliband to clarify, as Clegg has done, that this would effectively be an in/out poll and the two parties’ positions will be indistinguishable.

MPs in both parties think that position is unsustainable. Very senior Lib Dems have told me they recognise the implausibility of going into a general election campaign in 2015 without a referendum pledge in their manifesto when they had one in 2010. In other words, the wheel is being turned slowly but the direction is clear enough. By polling day, Clegg will have stripped away the caveats and signed up to national vote on EU membership. There are plenty on the Labour side, including a good number of shadow cabinet ministers, who think Miliband will ultimately have to make the same calculation.

The Tories are confident that their commitment to a referendum appeals beyond the ranks of militant eurosceptics. It is, they say, a point of principle – consulting the people and accepting their judgement. The fact that the Tories would split down the middle when it came to actually deciding how to vote in this great democratic consultation is a worry for after the election. Before polling day the only point that matters to Cameron is that he can insist that his party trusts the people and that labour doesn’t. As I wrote a few weeks ago there is mounting anxiety in the Labour ranks that such an attack has deadly resonance.

Miliband has good reasons for not promising an EU vote. Referendums are a dreadful policy tool. There are plenty of important decisions affecting national sovereignty, trade and international diplomacy that aren’t put to a vast national show of hands. Besides, why would an incoming Labour government want to spend its first year in office organising a campaign that only exists because Cameron (who by this stage would be the ex-leader of the Conservative party) felt bullied into something by his backbenchers, Ukip and their press cheerleaders?

Labour’s position is not as ridiculous as many Tories insist. Those who are obsessed with Europe naturally overestimate how much it matters to everyone else and how relevant it will be to their voting intentions. There is always the possibility that Tories banging on about Brussels stokes the sense of grievance among people who will always feel betrayed by Cameron, while signalling to moderate voters that the Conservatives are uninterested in their concerns. Cameron tends to treat his party's euroscepticism like an itchy rash. He gives into the temptation to scratch it hard, which feels good for a while but only makes it angrier, nastier-looking and harder to ignore in the long term.

So, in theory at least, Labour could hold a line against a referendum insisting that the nation’s priorities are elsewhere. Let Cameron and Co. swivel their eyes in imitation of Ukip, Miliband might say, while those of a more moderate disposition talk about jobs, growth, the cost of living etc. Except Miliband isn’t yet talking about those things in a way that captures the public imagination. Labour seem marooned between their old position of resisting austerity and their election pitch, which will be some variant of fiscal discipline with a conscience.

This Friday, parliament will vote on a Tory backbench motion affirming Cameron’s earlier pledge of a referendum some time in the next parliament. It cannot be legally binding on a successor parliament so its value is entirely symbolic. Labour MPs will for the most part stay away. Nick Clegg today confirmed that, as far as this particular legislative ruse is concerned, the Lib Dem position is again identical to Labour’s. The junior coalition party would not, he said, "waste any time helping the Conservatives indulge in their own internal feuds on the floor of the House of Commons on Friday."

But all the while Clegg is manoeuvring into a position where he accepts the inevitability of a European referendum. When he does so he will also position the Lib Dems as unequivocal and united campaigners for an "in" vote, drawing a clear contrast with the Tories. This poses a new hazard for Miliband, who is as instinctive a pro-European as you will find in parliament these days. If Clegg jumps first and declares himself the pro-referendum, pro-EU candidate, where does that leave the Labour leader? His allies say he will make a decision about Labour’s European policy based on principle alone; that he will not have his agenda dictated by media pressure or tactical Tory games. But by the time he has made up his mind, he could find that the clear positions – for and against; in and out – are taken. Then Labour once again will be left looking like the party that plays catch-up and whose defining approach to tricky issues is a preference not to talk about them.

Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser