If it is to be a "one nation" party, Labour must support an EU referendum

Miliband is making a strategic mistake by aligning the party with an EU political elite intent on exerting control over all 27 members states, regardless of the wishes of each electorate.

What does the one nation ideal mean for Labour’s approach to an in-out referendum on our EU membership? The term 'one nation' surely implies an end to class war politics and an equal voice in the democratic system for individuals from all sections of society. Rule by elites who act in their own interests at the expense of the rank and file, is the main danger to be avoided. If so, on what principled grounds could a one nation political party oppose an EU referendum?

Well into the 1980s Labour was sceptical about the EU. When I was a member of the party in Newcastle upon Tyne at the time of the 1975 referendum, the overwhelming view of members was that the Common Market (as it was then called) was dominated by the interests of business corporations. Rank and file workers counted for little. This view prevailed into the 1980s and was empirically confirmed by the actions of the Thatcher government in 1986.

The claim that the common market was largely an economic co-prosperity zone had some plausibility at the time of the 1975 referendum. It was possible for a nation to veto decisions that were against the interests of its people. So long as this safeguard remained, the EU might have developed into a mutually beneficial system of international co-operation. But the big countries wanted to be able to impose their wishes on other member states. The turning point came with the Single European Act of 1986, which was actively supported by the Thatcher government. The national veto was replaced by qualified majority voting (QMV) in a dozen key areas, including the single market, monetary co-operation and social policy.

In her book Statecraft, Thatcher explained that she supported the wider use of majority voting because she wished to force the other EU countries to eliminate "non-tariff barriers" to trade, which "operated through different national standards on health and safety, regulations and public procurement policies which discriminated against foreign products, and over-elaborate customs procedures". She wanted the power to outvote other countries, because she thought Britain would gain at the expense of other EU members, especially in providing services. Without the increase in majority voting, she said, "the programme itself could not have been driven through in the face of vested interests in member countries whose governments would have been under immense pressure to use the veto".

Her intention had been to impose de-regulation, but ten years later she admitted that harmful regulation had increased. She acknowledged two mistakes. She had naively believed that powers given to the EU to force through the single market would not be used for other purposes. And she had misunderstood the intentions of other leaders. The single market for them was "a device for centralising more decision-making in the hands of Europe".

In truth, she fell into a trap set up the centralisers. They knew she wanted to deregulate to strengthen the single market, and offered her the chance to coerce other EU members, with the intention of using the self-same powers to force the hand of Thatcher and future British governments. In the end, the Single European Act not only failed to extend the single market, Thatcher concluded that its powers had been "abused in order to push corporatist and collectivist legislation upon Britain by the back door". Her intention had been to impose de-regulation on other countries "by the back door" but they had turned the tables on her. The overall effect had been to "reduce Britain’s ability to compete successfully".

The Conservative Party, which had once prided itself on its patriotism, had under Thatcher been willing to surrender self-government for the paltry gain of a bigger market share for UK service providers in other EU countries. Thatcher at least admitted her mistake and perhaps her admission may serve as a warning to the current government. They could usefully take into account the alternative view that Thatcher advocated in Statecraft. She argued that the strategy of a "level playing field" was not as attractive as it sounded. Harmonisation often entrenched unwise regulation. A better approach would have been to allow different nations to compete to discover the best conditions for enterprise. She quotes J.S. Mill, who had argued that Europe owed its success to the ‘plurality of paths’ followed by different nations.

In saying this, she got close to understanding one of the strongest arguments for democratic self-government, one that was stressed constantly by liberal writers including Hayek, the thinker most admired by Thatcher. Human imperfection was such that we should be wary of giving any agency coercive power. In particular, our institutions should avoid granting exclusive or monopoly power, and instead should allow for reflection, double-checking, and the correction of mistakes in the light of experience. We should aim for an open society in which different ideas can be tried out, and in which creativity and innovation can flourish. Just as a competitive market allows consumers to compare companies, so national independence allows comparison between national systems, including their regulatory regimes. Moreover, democracy depends on nations. They make the ideal of government by consent a realistic hope, and the accountability of leaders a practical possibility.

One country could choose to have greater respect for trade unions and stronger workplace protection and set an example to others of what it believes to be best. Another could have light-touch regulation and offer itself for the critical judgment of other peoples. Over time each can learn from the other.

Until the 1980s it had been the policy of Labour to preserve national independence and Ed Miliband’s use of the term 'one nation' seemed to suggest a renewal of that tradition. But at present, Labour’s leadership is in danger of making a strategic mistake by aligning the party with an EU political elite intent on exerting control over all 27 EU nations, regardless of the wishes of each electorate. The ‘one-nation’ theme of recent speeches surely implies respect for the democratically-expressed views of the people of each nation. Not, it seems, if they want to secure independence from the EU. And yet it was Thatcher who willingly surrendered our powers of self-government. Moreover, David Cameron is no better than Thatcher. Cameron has advanced no principled defence of our independence and tacitly upholds the command-and-control mentality of Europe’s self-chosen elite. Labour is missing a chance to be the voice of the public spirited majority.

David Green is director of Civitas

Workers walk over a giant EU flag in front of the Parliament building in Bucharest, Romania. Photograph: Getty Images.
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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum