Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Why I’m against a referendum

Peter Kellner imagines the case Ed Miliband could put

—30 March 2015, London. This morning, Labour held its ‘Clause V’ meeting to decide the content of the party’s general election manifesto. This is an extract of what Ed Miliband said.

‘The draft before you rejects the notion of holding a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Let me explain why.

‘First, it is bad politics. Yes, I know the polls show that most voters, including most Labour voters, think a referendum is a good idea. But YouGov research tells us two other things: that Europe comes low down on voters’ list of priorities; and they dislike politicians who, in their view, cynically say anything to win votes.

‘The conclusion is clear. Switching our policy now would lose us more votes than it gains. It would antagonise millions of pro-Europeans without winning over those who hate the EU – they will continue to back genuinely anti-EU Tory or United Kingdom Independence party candidates. As for the biggest group of voters – those who, as David Cameron put it so well back in 2006, do not like parties that “bang on” about Europe – a shift to backing a referendum would send the message that we are weak and opportunist, not strong and principled.

‘But the case against a referendum goes well beyond these electoral calculations. The Conservatives are in such a bad shape, and UKIP’s support remains so strong, that we could well win the election even if we shed votes by backing a referendum.

‘Let’s think through the consequences of that. Cameron will either resign the Tory leadership or be forced out. His party will almost certainly choose a Europhobic successor. Imagine how a midterm referendum would then play out. The chances are that we will be unpopular. Governments in midterm almost always are. Given the tough decisions we all know we must take, this time is likely to be no different.

‘A midterm referendum, then, would pitch an unpopular pro-EU government against a popular anti-EU opposition, or a resurgent UKIP, or both. As so often in referendums round the world, the main intention of millions of voters would be to kick the government, not really to answer the question on the ballot paper. As a result, Britain might leave the EU. That would be a disaster – for prosperity, jobs and our influence in the world. I am not prepared to risk that happening on my watch.

‘Ah, say some pro-referendum colleagues, there is one big advantage of an in-out referendum: if we obtain a clear “in” majority, the debate would be over for a generation.

‘That is wrong. Remember what happened last time. In the 1975 referendum Britain voted by two to one to stay in the then common market. Yet just six years later, Labour promised to pull Britain out if we returned to power. The issue was closed down only when we were thrashed in 1983 and Neil Kinnock ended our anti-European stance. By the same token, we would be mad to suppose that an “in” majority in 2017 would cause UKIP and Conservative Eurosceptics to pack up their tents and give up their fight.

‘Instead, we should simply tell the truth. The Tories are promising a referendum because they are weak and divided. They are risking Britain’s future in order to prevent being engulfed by civil war. Their offer to “trust the people” is bogus. After all, they never offered a referendum on policies to extend NHS waiting lists, reduce the top rate of income tax or punish poor families with their bedroom tax.

‘Let’s expose their true motives. Let’s show that ours is the party that stands on principle, promotes prosperity and is confident of Britain’s place in the world.’


Peter Kellner is president of YouGov


Photo: Rock Cohen

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Peter Kellner

is president of YouGov


  • I will struggle to suggest a referendum as this will be used to target those who are already made to believe that other Europeans come to take their jobs. That is not true! It is rather a plus to Britain to see European investors coming to invest in Britain to provide jobs, innovations, multicultural diverse economic, sociable family working policies, technologically and environmental health friendly collective policies for the hard working, collective crime prevention and security, educational and skilful benefits to this country than we can imagine. The populists side of the story is cheap, manipulative, ‘simple’, deceiving and pretentious based on the ego of divide and rule and stay in power. But lets warn that, if Britain mistakenly gets an ‘out’ vote, the economic situation will not become better, rather worst. Other Europeans will still be here, but trade and security policies may change to the disadvantage of Britain. Britain may end up finding ourselves isolated and weak as we will have no voice in European matters. And as we know, Big Brother America has a big interest in Europe and they may not give Britain a proportional attention as they may be talking to Big Europe before Britain in case things go wrong in world politics. In fact, Britain will lose influence not only in international politics but also in economic and social values, and our reputation may not be high in Europe and globally as we may be seen the first to ‘leave the ship’.
    We need to let the grass-root members of our society know the truth, and the consequences of populists reactions to difference and time, which may drag this country to a disaster just for the thirst for power and,
    staying on their punitive measures to make this country a divided zone of massive inequalities.

  • The Conservatives propose to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership after negotiating changes and opt-outs that suit their policy preferences. The choice would be between a Conservative partial membership of Europe or no Europe.

    Remaining a full member would not be an option. If the Conservatives proposed, for instance, to opt out of the social chapter (common rules for the common market setting down minimum standards for protecting workers), there would be no vote on that.

    Ed Miliband is absolutely right to resist pressures to match the Conservative party’s pledge to hold a referendum. That pledge has very little to do with the national interest, and more to do with bridging the divisions within the Conservative party — and their fear of UKIP.

    If Labour pledged to hold a referendum, then it would have to do so – a massive distraction during the first years of the Labour government, diverting effort away from overcoming the economic downturn, and probably worsening it. And heaven help us if we lost it (which is not inconceivable, given the overwhelming hostility of the media). We would spend the next few years negotiating our exit from the European Union and simultaneously trying to negotiate new trade agreements with almost every other country in the world to replace those we currently have via the EU – negotiating alone, as Britain, without the clout of the rest of Europe behind us.

    I think Ed has also worked out that there are not many votes to be gained for Labour by pledging a referendum. Opinion polls show that the subject comes well down the list of issues considered important by the public. And many of those who do think it is a priority are to be found among right-wing Conservative or UKIP/BNP supporters – hardly likely to switch to Labour if we make a referendum pledge.

    Finally, there is the crucial matter of inward investment coming into Britain. The uncertainty created by questioning whether Britain might no longer be a member of the European Union — the world’s largest market — in five years time is already damaging inward investment now. It has not yet been dramatic, because most potential investors do not believe that a referendum is likely. After all, the opinion polls do not show much likelihood of a Conservative victory, let alone an absolute majority, in the general election. But if Labour matched the pledge, then the referendum would become a virtual certainty – and that would harm inward investment right now.

    Ed, even as leader of the opposition, knows he has a key responsibility for Britain’s economic prospects on his shoulders.


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