Calls for an EU referendum may not seem the most natural territory for the Labour Party. For years we have been the major proponent of close European integration within British politics, while demands for a referendum have been the preserve of the Eurosceptic lobby. However, if Ed Miliband were brave enough to include a commitment to one in our manifesto, it would not only appeal to many of our party’s core values, but could also be an electorally astute move.
Our participation in the European Union suffers from a democratic deficit. The economic union the British people signed up to in 1975 is almost unrecognisable to the political union that exists today. Over this time, many legislative powers have shifted from Westminster to Brussels. This in itself is not such a problem; I personally view the EU as a success, especially in its ability to improve employment rights for hundreds of millions of workers. The problem lies in that it is the MPs that have moved this ability to legislate away from themselves, creating a tier of governance above them. It should be the preserve of the electorate to decide what kind of democracy they live in.
The UK should use a referendum to kick-start democratic reform in the EU. At every level, there is a deficit of accountability. By recognising our own deficit and dealing with it, we can push forward from a positive and participatory position to address the others we see about us, building a stronger, not weaker, union. Gradually, we can build a better EU, but first, we need to look at the way our own relationship with Europe operates. This is no little England attitude, nor a capitulation to one, but one that looks at the bigger picture. Rather than make us look like troublesome neighbours, this could put the question to bed and cement our place in our close international community. While many other countries, including Denmark, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden, have held votes on the growth of the EU’s power in the last 30 years, the UK has not. It is not isolationist to suggest we change this.
We created Labour for a Referendum because we saw these difficulties as ones which we wanted to see our politicians tackle. We have a long, proud tradition of offering the public a say: out of 48 referendums that have taken place in this country, 46 were instigated by Labour governments. This campaign is not inspired by the actions of other parties, but by our movement’s history.
It is not difficult, either, to see how a referendum pledge fits into Ed Miliband’s burgeoning One Nation vision. The greater risk would be to allow David Cameron to use the issue of a referendum to undermine this idea, and frame it as empty rhetoric. We can not be scared to put our trust in the general public: no issue is so important that we cannot give people a say. Our arguments must be stronger than that. Nor can we let the unresolved referendum matter serve as a distraction from falling living standards in the run up to 2015. The Conservatives will do all they can to avoid being judged on their record – that’s why their main line of attack, after three years in power, is still about the last Labour government. They have no positive vision.
Ed Miliband, on the other hand, does. We are seeing now, with recent concrete policy pledges, what his plan for a new politics looks like. He clearly believes in the power of engaging people; something his trade union reform proposals reflect. Miliband is serious about giving more people a voice in the way politics is run. So are we.