Lib Dem MPs to abstain on Tories’ EU in/out referendum bill?

EU flag - Some rights reserved by European ParliamentOn 5th July, Tory MP James Wharton’s private member’s bill — laying out Conservative plans for an in-out referendum on the EU in 2017 — will get its second reading.

The Tories are on a three-line whip to support it (very unusual for a private member’s bill). Labour has confirmed they’ll shun the vote, branding the bill “a gimmick, a political stunt”. The Lib Dem parliamentary party will decide its position in a couple of weeks’ time, but is likely to abstain with Labour.

It’s a potentially risky decision, giving the appearance of saying we don’t trust the public to decide. That’s a view put forward by Lib Dem blogger Mark Thompson, for instance, who wrote in the wake of David Cameron’s January speech announcing the concession of an in/out referendum to his backbenchers:

We should agree with allowing a referendum once terms have been negotiated. That will help to neutralise it as an issue. It’s perfectly consistent with our position as we can clearly argue that renegotiated terms are a change and therefore our promise of a referendum should then kick in. This actually gives us a way out of the political cul-de-sac we have got ourselves into on this issue in recent weeks. We should take it and back Cameron.

It’s a persuasive, and pretty tempting, argument. But I don’t buy it. As I wrote last month:

The Tories say we should ask the people now: and we’re saying not yet. Tough sell. But when politicians avoid the easy choice (in this case conceding a referendum) it’s actually worth asking why. The answer’s clear: we don’t yet know what shape or form the EU will take once the Eurozone crisis is resolved (which may happen peaceably or messily). Ask the question now and you may end up having to ask it again in three years’ time.

To date, Lib Dem members have pretty solidly backed the leadership line on this, with clear majorities against offering a referendum according to our surveys. In April, 58% said the party shouldn’t include a pledge for an in/out referendum on our 2015 manifesto compared with 34% of members who thought the party should.

As I’ve noted before, there’s a deep irony in all this. The person best placed to keep the UK in the European Union is David Cameron. His speech this week in the lead-up to the G8 summit was unambiguously pro-European, as the New Statesman’s Rafael Behr rightly noted.

But if the Tories fail to win the 2015 election, as currently seems likely, Mr Cameron’s successor will be a better-off-outer. Together with the press, he or she will run a populist, nationalist, Little Englander campaign that could well prevail in an in/out referendum.

David Cameron may not always look like much of a Good European. But for those of us who are pro-internationalist and believe the UK should remain within the EU (a reformed EU, that is) the current Tory leader truly is our best hope.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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17 Comments

  • Might as well abstain now and spend the day in constituencies; plenty of better chances to kill the bill when it progresses through report stages and 3rd reading.

    In terms of the party line, I think we should look North. In Scotland, Alex Salmond went to the people saying “we want independence, and we’ll give a referendum to do it.” They won a majority, and no-one is disputing their right to hold a binding referendum, with Michael Moore playing a blinder on terms. The Tories should have to do the same; rather than bickering about a referendum – the mechanics not the issue – they should say in their 2015 manifesto that they want to leave the EU, will give us a referendum, and if they win a majority they have every right to one. No mandate for a referendum any other way in my view – unless there is a further transfer of competencies, where the referendum lock kicks in.

  • Nick Thornsby Nick Thornsby 14th Jun '13 - 1:37pm

    I agree with you, Stephen. There is also a good tactical reason not to match the Tory policy. If there is another hung parliament and we’re negotiating with the Tories, a referendum will obviously be crucial for them, allowing us to extract more concessions. If our policies are aligned it is a big negotiating point off the table.

  • paul barker 14th Jun '13 - 3:46pm

    Labours abstention is partly designed to cover their own divisions. Our MPs should turn up in force & vote against. We should be arguing that this is damaging the recovery. Our Front Bench team should occupy the Opposition benches & argue confidently against petty Nationalism.

  • Well, although I disagree with the idea of a referendum, there might be a case for hoisting the Tories on their own petard with this issue.

    Namely, propose an amendment to the bill setting the date for a referendum to be in, let’s say, 6 months time. If the Tories vote it down, they are denying the electorate a say. If they vote in favour, they face a referendum in which they face the electorate without ANY of the other member states having given a commitment to even discuss a free-trade arrangement with a future non-EU UK.

  • Richard Harris 14th Jun '13 - 9:57pm

    Can someone explain to me why Cameron and not Miliband are the best pro-European hope? Surely if, as seems likely, the Tories do not secure a majority at the next election, the a lib-lab pact would be on the cards – Even with the Labour divisions over Europe, that would be a better position for all pro-Europeans wouldn’t it?

  • Richard Harris 15th Jun '13 - 8:29am

    @ jedibeeftrix. First time someone has translated my own question for me!
    My question was broadly about a simple comparison between the two most likely leaders of the country after the next election. I am not a pro-european, but I would have expected pro-european lib dems to be thinking hard about working with Milliband after the next election as his party is less divided (or less equally divided?) on the issue.
    Also, I would have thought the experience of this current government is that the Lib Dems are indeed a minority party that seeks unproportional influence and political power through negotiation to get the policies agreed by its members into law, so I am a little confused by the second part of your answer. The party certainly does not work hard to reflect the democratic views of the country, on the European issue or any other. To suggest otherwise is patronising the electorate.

  • John Heyworth 15th Jun '13 - 10:21am

    As a pro-European party why are we fearful of a referendum? we should support the Wharton Bill and its call for a vote or as Paul R states above “propose an amendment to the bill setting the date for a referendum to be in, let’s say, 6 months time.” We would then be free to argue passionatley the case for staying in (no doubt joined by many Tories/Labour big hitters as well).
    Didn’t we after all argue for an In/Out vote as part of our last General Election campaign?
    It’s time to let the people decide, Abstain = Dodge the issue = Ignore the public!

  • “Liberal Democrats have argued for a referendum on whether Britain stays in or leaves the EU. We are the only party confident enough to put the pro-European case to the British people on the big issue facing us – and let the people decide. Britain will only win the case for a flexible, democratic Europe in Brussels if we settle our arguments at home on whether we should be part of the EU or not.”

    Lib Dem Euro Manifesto

    The last sentence is the key one. When did the opinion change that that we could only win the case for a flexible, democratic Europe after we have settled our arguments at home ???? The current course of this Government is to negotiate first then offer a referendum, in other words to try and win the argument BEFORE we settle the arguments at home.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Jun '13 - 4:51pm

    I’m in favour of a referendum in 2017 because I think the important principle of dispersing power also applies to governments.

    I would almost definitely vote to stay in, but millions of people won’t accept an ever expanding EU.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Jun '13 - 4:58pm

    I also think the argument of having a referendum when we know what the EU will look like is pretty weak because we never know for sure what things are going to look like. We don’t even know for sure what the UK will look like next year.

  • Alex Macfie 18th Jun '13 - 2:14pm

    Not sure why the Lib Dem Euro Manifesto is commenting on a domestic issue outside the competency of MEPs, but anyway as far as I’m concerned that quoted line from the manifesto is nonsense. Politicians in a position of power in the EU, be they government ministers in the Council, or MEPs, can say what they like when they like about what direction the EU should take, and can use their influence any time they choose. They do not have to wait for a referendum.

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