Britain: Inching towards a referendum on Europe
A quiet suburban street set in the leafy suburbs of Cheadle, Manchester, Northern England on Monday, witnessed a coming together of a former Leader of Manchester City Council, Labour MP Graham Stringer and a local Conservative MP with a strong independent streak, David Nuttall. This unlikely couple had joined forces with activists from the pro EU referendum campaign, ‘Peoples Pledge’ to launch a new campaign for three mini referendums in three Manchester constituencies.
The fact that all three constituencies; Cheadle, Hazel Grove and Withington are all held with slender majorities by Liberal Democrats might in other circumstances explain what brought the two MPs together, since both real Labour and real Tory supporters loathe the Liberal Democrats. And it is the case that the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg are horribly exposed on the issue of having an EU referendum, since prior to the last General Election, that is exactly what Nick Clegg was promising. It is this perennial slipperiness of the political Establishment, that brought campaigners together in Manchester, for if MPs and candidates can be made to see how strong their electorates feel on an issue such as this, and pledge – on video – to vote for and in/out referendum, there is precious little wriggle room come the next General Election.
Referendum campaigners are pretty confident of getting a fairly overwhelming vote in favour of having an EU referendum when all three constituencies go to the polls on 19 July. In Thurrock, Essex, over 80% voted in favour in a turn-out of 30%. This in an area with a historically low turn-out of voters in elections and this in a constituency where barely 24% had voted in the previous local government elections.
(Left to right) Graham Stringer, Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton, David Nuttall, Conservative for Bury North, Cllr Anthony O’Neill, (Conservative) Heatons North Ward, Stockport Council
Clearly fast-moving events elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Greece and Spain, are giving added impetus to the whole issue of Britain’s relationship with the European Union. They are also driving the issue closer and closer to the decision makers in the main parties. In recent weeks, we have seen a growing number of establishment Labour figures accepting that a referendum may have to be held. Pro EU supporters such as Lord Mandelson, have re-entered the political fray and have made oblique noises designed to be interpreted by different people to mean different things. But there is no doubt that recent pronouncements from Peter Hain and Ed Balls show that the political landscape is set to change quite radically. A senior Labour MP told me that his Shadow Cabinet friends certainly detect a shift in thinking by Ed Miliband. No clearer signal of these shifting political sands was the appointment of Labour MP, Jon Cruddas, to front up the party’s current, all embracing Policy Review. Cruddas is on record, having spoken to the People’s Pledge on video, as supporting an EU referendum. His political antennae, especially when it comes to what many working class voters are thinking, is key to Labour beginning to win back some of the five million of those voters it lost the last time around.
There is of course no guarantee for either side – those who would stay in, or those who would exit that once out of the bottle, the genie can be returned. Currently, voters attitudes to the EU are hardening further, as the Euro-zone splinters apart under its own contradictions and German recalcitrance. Conversely it is just possible that a new Euro zone, centred on Germany and the Benelux countries, could one day begin to make the EU more popular as an institution. But for now, these are imponderables. For Ed Miliband and Labour, this is make your mind up time. The Labour leader will be by now aware that in making a firm commitment to hold a referendum at the next election it would throw the Coalition into utter chaos and split the Conservative Party from top to bottom. Miliband’s new policy supremo will also be able to see just how popular this move would make Labour with its traditional base.
Of course, should Ed Miliband, make this seismic shift, he will be accused of populism, seeking cheap electoral advantage and potentially playing with fire. But in truth, and for all of those pundits who have been trying to find Miliband’s ‘Clause Four moment’, the moment when he breaks with the all party consensus over the EU, is just that moment. All of the signals are that he now knows it.
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