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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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”