David Cameron in September 2007:
“Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee: If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from [the Lisbon Treaty] negotiations.”
David Cameron this morning (23rd January 2013):
“…when we have negotiated that new settlement, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice. To stay in the EU on these new terms; or come out altogether. It will be an in-out referendum.”
I’m saying nothing…
The European Union seems to be the flavour de jour at the moment. It’s probably partly due to the fact that the eurozone (contrary to popular belief, not the same thing) is in meltdown. It’s probably also partly due to the fact that euroscepticism has become one of the principle markers of “right wing” now that openly hating poor people is considered uncivilised.
But whatever the reason, next week will see a House of Commons debate on whether there should be a referendum on our continued membership of the EU. It’s a backbench motion, so not binding on the government, but anyone who knows their political history will know quite how destructive Europe can be as an issue for the Conservative Party. It brought down Thatcher, proved a continual thorn in the side of Major, and left the public with a decidedly unsavoury impression of the Tories for years.
So I’m sure Cameron will welcome this motion like a hole in the head. They’ve even moved it forward, from Thursday to Monday, so he can attend. How generous of them!
Now, I should declare an interest: I’m (broadly) pro-EU. It’s far from perfect, but in a basic in/out referendum I would vote in. Because I genuinely believe that it’s in the best interests of the country. In a three-pronged referendum, offering choices of in/out/renegotiation-and-reform, or as I like to call it “shake it all about”, I’d probably lump for the hokey cokey option.
The fun thing about this motion is that it seems to be causing huge headaches for everyone who isn’t me. Allow me to explain the various parties’ objections.
Our (somewhat) eurosceptic Prime Minister and his government feels trapped between a hard place and a rock. It’s easy to be slaveringly eurosceptic and ally your party with “nutters, anti-semites, people who deny climate change exists and homophobes” when you’re in opposition, but when you’re in government you actually have to work with the EU. So he can whip his party to vote against a referendum, which a) risks pissing off an already pissed off Conservative right wing, and b) would make a referendum-winning rebellion. Or he could give his party a free vote, which would run the very real risk of passing the motion.
Rampant eurosceptics, too, seem to be hesitant about it. The thinking ones, at least. Alex Singleton, writing on the Daily Mail website, says that in just such a three-option referendum the “better off out crowd” would lose to the much more reasonable third choice. He’s right, in my opinion. Which is all the more reason to do it.
You see, I’d quite like a referendum I think. The eurosceptics, with UKIP at the head, have been screaming for one for ages. I say we give it to them. They would object to a three-choice referendum, naturally, but if they argued against it then the clear comeback is that they’re trying to use the question to influence the result. Also, when the majority chose to renegotiate/reform the EU, then we can actually move on and make a positive improvement to it. That, surely, is both in the best interest of democracy and the country.
The fact that it would split the Conservative Party, drive Cameron to the brink of nervous breakdown and put an end to UKIP’s bleating and raison d’être is just a bonus.
I was going to call this “Putting the Liberal in Libservative”, but after the deeply regressive budget the coalition have put forward, that seemed a little too oxymoronic.
So this weekend, the coalition has announced the date for their AV referendum. 5th May 2011. It’s a big moment, because it’s the only meaningful concession that the Lib Dems got out of the Tories. It’s not what they wanted, but it’s not what the Tories wanted either. Everyone knows that the Lib Dems will campaign for AV, and the Tories will campaign against it, and really that facet of the issue isn’t that interesting.
The importance of this announcement is that it’s Nick Clegg’s attempt to justify himself to his party and voters, after the travesty of the VAT hike he campaigned against, and then fell in line behind. Compromise is one thing, but VAT was the weapon of choice that the Lib Dems attacked the Tories with during the election. To support it now is not simply compromise, but a betrayal of principles, and the voters who listened and agreed to what they had said.
But the Lib Dem frontbench hopes that this announcement will be a reminder that yes, they did get something out of the deal. They might have sold their souls, but at least they didn’t sell them for completely nothing. Right? Well, it’s still a very small concession. The Tories’ line is clear; they like first past the post. They’ll throw their full weight behind it, including the Ashcroft/Murdoch machine (and I don’t believe that DC will remain neutral in the campaign). The Lib Dem’s line on it, however, isn’t exactly harmonious. They want a much more radical electoral reform, and this is just a tiny step in the direction they want to go.
I’m in favour of AV. I’m actually in favour of Single Transferable Vote, but that’s so complicated as to probably be impractical for the population to understand, without a few generations of quality political education in schools (another thing that I’m fairly passionate about the need for). But I don’t know whether it will pass or not.
And on top of that, this could be a serious problem for the Labour Party. Whilst the Tories and the Lib Dems have their clear places on either side of the electoral reform line, Labour is bisected by it. Some want reform, some want to keep first past the post, which will make the whole issue vary precarious. It runs the risk of dividing the party on the campaign, particularly as the inclusion of the boundary changes the Tories want to make to keep Labour out in the future will be bound up in it. Even those who like the idea of AV are relucatant to support a measure which will also gerrymander the constitution.
In my opinion, this is one of those now issues. Labour needs to debate openly and intensely their stance on the referendum, and make a collective decision where the party stands. And it needs to stick by that position, every man, woman and child. Because this might be the godsend Clegg is looking for. It might tear the only opposition apart, and allow him to get away with his betrayal of progressive politics. This is not a time for party squabbles, and the leadership contest so far has been conducted with such dignity and civility, it would be a real shame to lose that unity now.
(And on an entirely unrelated note, don’t forget my Werewolf Anthology Competition! Only a week left, and still no entries. Come on people, I’ve got a copy of the anthology here, and I want to give it to someone for free!)