Ed Miliband was right about one thing: plebiscites are problematicby Peter Kellner / May 22, 2015 / Leave a comment
It is just as well I am not a Labour politician, for the following sentence would surely make me persona non grata in the post-election era, whoever becomes the party’s new leader. But, in for a cent, in for a euro, here goes: Margaret Thatcher and Ed Miliband were right, while Andy Burnham, Mary Creagh and Liz Kendall are wrong.
The issue is whether Labour should now reverse Miliband’s stance on an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Miliband opposed David Cameron’s plans for a referendum before the end of 2017. It was one of the issues on which he was clear, principled, courageous – and right. Now, three of the four people who have announced their candidacy to lead the party want to back a vote.
I understand their argument. Opposition to a referendum looks arrogant and high-handed, as if we don’t trust the people. Voters say they want a referendum, and it would be undemocratic to deny one. Labour’s opposition contributed to the party’s unpopularity in this month’s election. Far better to admit that Miliband got this one wrong, hold a vote, and put the matter to rest.
These are not ridiculous arguments (though I doubt whether Labour’s defeat is down to its stance on an EU referendum), but they are too short-sighted. Referendums have crept into our constitutional arrangements haphazardly, with little clear discussion about the principles that should apply to any proposal to hold one. When, and on what issues should we operate direct democracy and let the people decide, and when should we stick with representative democracy, and leave matters to Parliament?
This is where Margaret Thatcher comes in. From the mid-1980s on she was, of course a fierce critic of the European Union. But before then, she spoke more clearly than most politicians about the case for Europe and the role of Parliament. In the spring of 1975, she had to take one of her first big judgement calls as her party’s new leader: how to respond to the White Paper that Harold Wilson’s government had published ahead of the referendum to be held that June.
Thatcher spoke against the referendum. Her speech stands as one of the most coherent and forensic critiques of such votes. After quoting with approval…