The left in British politics has a proud heritage of enfranchising working class voters and ensuring that working people have a say in how their country is run. It’s a radical tradition that stretches back to the Levellers, through the Chartists, the Suffragettes and the founders of the Labour Party at the turn of the century.
In rejecting a referendum on the EU, Labour have defied this heritage. They are saying that working people cannot be trusted to make a big decision about how the country should be run in the future. They are saying that the elites, the man in Whitehall or the crown placemen know better than the people.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. In the 1970s, it was Labour who were making a principled case that the people should have their say. Michael Foot, a man steeped in the radical tradition said in 1975 that, “this question… will never be settled until the people of this country have had the right to pass judgement on it… we insist that, on a matter of such consequence, only the British people can settle it.”
That is now the polar opposite of where Ed Miliband’s party stand. Since that referendum in 1975, the EU has changed utterly. Both Conservative and Labour governments have handed over power from Parliament to people in Brussels who we do not elect and cannot remove. And the British people haven’t had a chance to give our judgement on any of those transfers of power.
We haven’t had the chance to have a say on our membership of the EU in my lifetime and in that time Brussels has become more and more powerful. It’s clear that Miliband is wrong in refusing the people the chance to have a say on Europe. But what is particularly perplexing is the fact that he’s decided to make his opposition to a popular policy the centrepiece of his campaign.
Miliband has talked about engaging working people in politics, but is utterly unprepared to give people a say on Europe. He has made his concern about vested interests in big business one of the hallmarks of his leadership. His reason for not giving the people a say on the EU? Apparently the very same big businesses he’s been complaining about think it’s a bad idea and they don’t like the uncertainty.
There are a few problems with this uncertainty argument. The so-called uncertainty since David Cameron made his referendum pledge hasn’t stopped the British economy becoming one of the most successful in Europe and creating 2 million new jobs.
And business isn’t as opposed as Miliband makes out. Indeed, most businesses are actually in favour. Of course, there are a select band of businesses who are very comfortable in the corridors of Brussels and made apocalyptic threats about what would happen if we didn’t join the Euro. But polling for ‘Business for Britain’ shows that two-thirds of businesses, large, small and medium-sized, are in favour of a referendum.
The truth is that Ed Miliband has been forced to grab on to the life raft of opposing a referendum in the hope that it will change his anti-enterprise image. In doing so, he’s saying that he’s prepared to offer big business a veto when it comes to giving the people a say. And he’s ignoring the views of those insurgent small and medium sized businesses and those entrepreneurs who are the engines of growth in this country.
The case for a referendum is clear and unarguable. And it was succinctly made by Jon Cruddas, undoubtedly one of the most interesting figures in politics. In 2011, Cruddas said, “this is about democracy. This is about respecting the people. Successive generations have not had a say on the European debate… That is not right and undermines trust in the political process. This will fester until a proper open discussion is allowed. If we do not have a real referendum then anger and resentment will grow. We have to be bold and let the people into this conversation.” Cruddas was right. It’s just a shame that his leader doesn’t share this desire to trust the people.
This article first published in New Statesman on 31st March 2015.