Official pamphlets from the 1975 referendum campaign. Photo: Getty
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In denying people a say on Europe, Labour disgraces its own history

Labour's refusal to even consider a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union is a betrayal of its history and an embarrasment to its radical tradition.

The left in British politics has a proud heritage of enfranchising working class voters and ensuring that working people have a say in how their country is run. It’s a radical tradition that stretches back to the Levellers, through the Chartists, the Suffragettes and the founders of the Labour Party at the turn of the century.

In rejecting a referendum on the EU, Labour have defied this heritage. They are saying that working people cannot be trusted to make a big decision about how the country should be run in the future. They are saying that the elites, the man in Whitehall or the crown placemen know better than the people.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. In the 1970s, it was Labour who were making a principled case that the people should have their say. Michael Foot, a man steeped in the radical tradition said in 1975 that, “this question… will never be settled until the people of this country have had the right to pass judgement on it… we insist that, on a matter of such consequence, only the British people can settle it.”

That is now the polar opposite of where Ed Miliband’s party stand. Since that referendum in 1975, the EU has changed utterly. Both Conservative and Labour governments have handed over power from Parliament to people in Brussels who we do not elect and cannot remove. And the British people haven’t had a chance to give our judgement on any of those transfers of power.

We haven’t had the chance to have a say on our membership of the EU in my lifetime and in that time Brussels has become more and more powerful. It’s clear that Miliband is wrong in refusing the people the chance to have a say on Europe. But what is particularly perplexing is the fact that he’s decided to make his opposition to a popular policy the centrepiece of his campaign.

Miliband has talked about engaging working people in politics, but is utterly unprepared to give people a say on Europe. He has made his concern about vested interests in big business one of the hallmarks of his leadership. His reason for not giving the people a say on the EU? Apparently the very same big businesses he’s been complaining about think it’s a bad idea and they don’t like the uncertainty.

There are a few problems with this uncertainty argument. The so-called uncertainty since David Cameron made his referendum pledge hasn’t stopped the British economy becoming one of the most successful in Europe and creating 2 million new jobs.

And business isn’t as opposed as Miliband makes out. Indeed, most businesses are actually in favour. Of course, there are a select band of businesses who are very comfortable in the corridors of Brussels and made apocalyptic threats about what would happen if we didn’t join the Euro. But polling for ‘Business for Britain’ shows that two-thirds of businesses, large, small and medium-sized, are in favour of a referendum.

The truth is that Ed Miliband has been forced to grab on to the life raft of opposing a referendum in the hope that it will change his anti-enterprise image. In doing so, he’s saying that he’s prepared to offer big business a veto when it comes to giving the people a say. And he’s ignoring the views of those insurgent small and medium sized businesses and those entrepreneurs who are the engines of growth in this country.

The case for a referendum is clear and unarguable. And it was succinctly made by Jon Cruddas, undoubtedly one of the most interesting figures in politics. In 2011, Cruddas said, “this is about democracy. This is about respecting the people. Successive generations have not had a say on the European debate… That is not right and undermines trust in the political process. 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.” Cruddas was right. It’s just a shame that his leader doesn’t share this desire to trust the people. 

David Skelton is the director of Renewal, a new campaign group aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class and ethnic minority voters. @djskelton

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Private renter poverty has doubled in a decade - so where's Labour?

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation named housing market failures as driving poverty. 

Labour’s economic policy task is enormous. It must find a coherent argument that addresses Brexit, the “left behinds”, and a nervous business community. But there is one policy area that should be an open goal – private renting. 

The number of private renters in poverty has doubled over the last decade, according to a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Those most likely to fall into poverty are working families – there were 2.8m of these people in 2014-15, compared to 1m a decade earlier.

“Failures in the housing market are a significant driver of poverty,” the report noted, after finding more than 70 per cent of private renters in poverty pay at least a third of their income in rent.

This is particularly the case if you consider the knock-on effect - housing benefit. This benefit was frozen by George Osborne, meaning that by 2015 Shelter calculated rates had fallen behind actual rents in nearly 70 per cent of England. For families out of work, of course, housing benefit is also included in the benefit cap. 

Private renter poverty is easily characterised as an inner-city problem – the kind cherished by the “metropolitan elite”. But in fact, across Great Britain as a whole, roughly one in ten children under 19 lives in a family that is privately renting and claiming housing benefit. The highest percentage was in Blackpool, followed by the Essex coastal area of Tendring, followed by London boroughs. Private renting is a trend that affects both the Remain strongholds and the Leave coastal towns.

So far, Labour has been relatively quiet on private renting. During the summer’s leadership campaign, Jeremy Corbyn promised to introduce “rent controls, secure tenancies and a charter of private tenants’ rights” (a promise he repeated as part of a longer speech in November). But this is hardly a blockbuster campaign. 

And the challenges are great. A convincing renting policy must explain how Labour would deal with a reactionary letting market industry (including pensioner voters), whether renting should be a step to buying, or an end in itself, and how new council and social housing would be allocated.

Labour could also, though, tie a rent campaign into other trends - the growing army of self-employed that find it hard to prove their wages to a landlord or mortgage lender, the working families on frozen benefits, and the employers that find their employees priced out of the local area. And pissed-off tenants are not hard to find. 

If Labour doesn’t move soon on an issue that should be its natural home, the government may steal the keys. In the Autumn Statement, Philip Hammond helped himself to Ed Miliband’s 2015 promise to ban letting agent fees. The government has also set up a working group with members of the private renting industry. (Yes, the government may also be selling off social housing under Right to Buy, but if you never had the option of social housing anyway, this may pass you by.)

Fixing the housing market takes imagination and a steeliness to take on entrenched interests. But if Labour does come up with a solution, it could touch the lives of voters, both Leave and Remain. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.