Referendum: what’s going on?

As The Voice and others have covered this week, the Liberal Democrat policy on a Euro-referendum – or not – has been in the news. Understandably the media reports have caused some confusion over what the party’s current policy is – and on this occasion I don’t think the media is to blame.

The party’s policy has been that if there is to be a European referendum, it should be an in/out referendum. However, lurking behind the word “if” were two different points of view earlier this year. One group of people believed that an in/out referendum was a good idea, regardless of what happened to Lisbon and so on. Another group of people didn’t want an in/out referendum – but were willing to put up with one as the lesser of two evils in the context of the debate over the Lisbon Treaty and referedums.

In the run-up to the June Euro-elections the wider political context meant that the differences between believing “if…” and believing “if… (and I really want one)” were easily smoothed over.

However, having talked to a range of people about what has happened since June, two things are clear. First, some of the keenest supporters of in/out referendum are no longer in the posts they were. Second, with Lisbon ratified and the Conservatives easing off their referendum demands, there is now a big difference between the two view points – and it’s one that can’t simply be smoothed over.

And hence there’s a policy decision up for debate in the party. The key question will be what goes in the general election manifesto and that has not yet been decided.

Ming Campbell has staked out his view, arguing there’s no appetite for a referendum in the country and we should therefore let the matter drop (even if technically, were a referendum to suddenly come out of nowhere, we’d still want an in/out one). On the other hand, many people in the party argued for an in/out referendum on the basis of arguments which are as good now as they were earlier in the year.

As for Nick Clegg’s view on the matter? He has stuck very closely to a form of words that avoids committing himself one way or the other on the question of whether or not he believes there should still be a referendum, only saying that if there is one it should be in/out. He’s therefore not come down on one side or the other of this party policy debate – which should make for a better debate than if it were one of for or against the party leader.

That’s why I’m fairly relaxed about this. There’s a debate to be had. The manifesto process is a fairly democratic one and it’ll come to a decision. My one caveat is that there are better ways to start off the debate in public – and in particular better ways to respect the many hours many members and supporters have put in to campaigning on the issue in the previous months. But on the substantive issue, if you have a strong view one way or the other – get lobbying.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Party policy and internal matters.


  • Herbert Brown 4th Dec '09 - 11:54am

    “The party’s policy has been that if there is to be a European referendum, it should be an in/out referendum.”

    That’s certainly not the way the party has presented it.

    For example:
    “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.”

    Nothing there about if there is to be a referendum

  • Herbert Brown 4th Dec '09 - 12:05pm

    And here’s another one:

    “The Liberal Democrats believe we should have a real vote on Europe – whether we should be in Europe or out.

    We have been blocked from having a vote on this in Parliament, and all the Conservatives are proposing is a limited referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

    However, the public back our position by a margin of 2:1: twice as many people think a referdum should be on whether we stay in Europe or not rather than only on the Lisbon Treaty.

    We want that real referendum because if Britain is to stride forward confidently into the 21st century and tackle global issues like climate change and terrorism, we need to decide once and for all whether our future lies within the European Union, or outside it.

    In that referendum campaign we will argue long and hard for Britain’s vital place in the EU.

    Please support our challenge to the Government and the Conservative Party to give the public a real choice on Europe by signing our petition.

    We, the undersigned, believe the Government should give the British people a real choice on Europe by holding a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.”

  • So when the party announces a clear policy (in this case on an EU referendum) with which a member agrees, that member is then obliged to keep a watchful eye for the party changing its mind quietly, and is then somehow expected to beat the likes of Sir Ming with big sticks to keep to the original position unless Conference decides otherwise?

    And despite our alleged “democratic” policy making, I really can’t see us having a policy vote on as divisive an issue as Europe at our last conference before a general election…

  • I was speaking to a member of the Lib Dem Shadow Cabinet about this a few weeks ago. He said that Nick Clegg wasn’t keen on committing to an in/out referendum and members of the House of Lords and European Parliament didn’t like the idea either.

    However, I got the impression there are quite a few LD MPs who think an in/out referendum is a good idea as a matter of principle and would enable us to outflank the Tories. I have to agree to be honest.

  • David Allen 4th Dec '09 - 4:52pm

    The referendum policy was offered as our way to deal with the Lisbon issue. That issue has now been dealt with: in a different way, of course, but it has been dealt with. We are now at liberty either to retain or to ditch the policy, given that we are now in an entirely different situation in respect of Lisbon.

    I was a big supporter of the policy. I thought it was a principled way of dealing with the head of steam that was building up over Lisbon. (If the sceptics had succeeded in scuppering Lisbon, they would then cheerily have admitted that all they had achieved was a step on the path to withdrawal from the EC.)

    Overwhelmingly however, the public did not see it our way. They thought we were just fudging our way out of a promise. I don’t agree with them. But I know when I’m in the minority.

    We now have Lisbon, or Lisbon lite with Mr Rompuy, for what good it will do us. Well, it”s better than not having it.

    Having achieved a measure of stability in Europe, there is absolutely no point in our joining with UKIP to make a new demand to upset the applecart. And there is no point in reminding the electorate about a policy stance of ours which met with their extreme derision last time we tried it out. (Even if that derision was unjustified.)

    Ming has got it right.

  • David Evershed 4th Dec '09 - 7:58pm

    It was a disgraceful decision by us LibDems to drop the promise of a referendum on the Lisbon Constitution by hidding behind the argument that it had been changed to the Lisbon Treaty. Manoeuvers such as that are what gives politics and poiticians a bad name.

  • The re-branding of the constitution as a treaty was a piece of political cynicism par excellence. The only chance for the Lib Dems to avoid the trap they are now in was to admit as much at the time and stick to their commitment to a referendum, but instead they chose to partake in that cynicism and the trap closed around them. ‘In or out’ was supposed to get them out of this trap, but it just made matters even worse.

    Now they’re going to look cynical, insincere and incompetent whether they choose to drop their pledge or retain it.

  • Hi, I am just wondering how you would get involved in policy debate as a liberal democrat member?

  • Herbert Brown 5th Dec '09 - 12:27am

    “Now they’re going to look cynical, insincere and incompetent whether they choose to drop their pledge or retain it.”

    Campbell and Clegg between them seem to have accomplished the remarkable feat of making the Lib Dems appear the least principled and most cynical of the three parties on this issue.

    Pretty amazing considering the competition!

  • Paul Griffiths 5th Dec '09 - 6:06pm

    OP: “… some of the keenest supporters of in/out referendum are no longer in the posts they were …”

    Exactly. Once again: the problem is not our policy on the EU, it’s our lack of policy on referendums. As a consequence our public position depends entirely on whoever next manages to grab the microphone.

    To arrive at an enduring and principled policy we need to be clear what the deficiencies of representative democracy are that referendums are supposed to fix.

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