Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Lib Dems should not ditch the in/out referendum pledge

Ming Campbell has indicated on The Daily Politics today that the Lib Dems may be moving away from their pledge on an in/out referendum for the EU. If this is true then I think this is a mistake.

I have been a bit back and forth on the Lib Dem's approach to the Lisbon treaty. I tried to sum up my views in a blogpost early last month:

I think that the EU hugely over complicates these treaties and makes it difficult for non-technocrats to understand them. I certainly haven't the time or inclination to wade through it. I don't really understand why they can't keep it simple. Something like the US constitution is clear, concise and simple enough to be understood by schoolchildren - indeed it is taught to them in schools. Does anyone seriously think that say the Maastricht Treaty or Lisbon could be taught in a similar way?

Unfortunately, that is not how these things are done in Europe (perhaps more learned people than me could explain why in the comments) so because it is so complicated, it was not a good idea to pledge a referendum. How many people would read and fully understand it before voting? That is where parliament should earn its money by debating the treaty and voting on it.

However the Lib Dems and Labour did pledge a referendum and because I think parties should honour their pledges, we should not have gone back on this. I know both parties had their arguments: "It's no longer a constitution" in the case of Labour, "The real question is in or out" in the case of the Lib Dems but to most people it seems like a reneging on pre-election promises. I find it very hard to argue against that.

Now that we have done though, I actually think our current policy is more sensible than our original one. The ongoing saga of Europe needs to be settled. The last referendum was 35 years ago and on a completely different question.

I genuinely think that a referendum on in/out would be close and may go "out". I would not want to see this outcome but I am a democrat and we need to allow the public to make up their minds on this in order to settle this issue at least for the next political generation.

So my conclusion was that I would not have got to where are via the same route but that an in/out referendum was the correct policy. It is genuinely brave for a pro-EU as there is a real risk of losing but it is also principled and won or lost would settle the question which has dogged our politics for many years.

I also think it is a vote winner. Both the Conservatives and Labour are not offering anything like it as they both fear the consequences of an "out" vote. Having it as one of our policies makes it easier for people who may like some or lots of our other policies but may not agree with our pro-EU approach to vote for us as they know they would ultimately be given the choice by us anyway.

So the idea that we now might be ditching this policy seems odd to me. Even more odd is Ming's comment that there is "no public appetite" for a vote. That really does not seem to tally with the views of a decent chunk of the electorate in polls that I have seen. There may be little appetite amongst our political classes but that is a very different thing.

I very much hope that Ming was just flying a flag and that we keep this policy.


Hadleigh Roberts said...

The problem with the Lib Dem in/out referendum is that you can't have a vote on the status quo, so it looks a little bit silly when the Lib Dems are asking people to vote against their own proposals!

In the words of the Press Officer to a Lib Dem frontbencher, "the Lib Dem position of the EU is completely stupid."

Mark Wadsworth said...

Correct. How can a promise to hold a referendum not be a vote winner? Problem is, the big three parties all have form for promising one and then reneging.

Simon Fawthrop said...

Nick claimed he favoured an In/Out in today's interview but when asked if he would make it a manifesto commitment by a caller he obfuscated (he did sound convincing in his obfuscation, plenty of practice I suppose).

To be fair he did say that he would then campaign to stay in and that he expected a win. Given that all 3 main parties would be in favour of staying in, the EU would lavish billions on the In campaign and they could expect support from the BBC and a large section of the MSM, it is a good assumption to make.

Its not even high risk, as some claim. If its an Out vote the EU and those who want to stay in, who will still be in Government BTW, will make the process so slow and painful that when the second referendum comes along we'll be begging to stay in. But he couldn't say that, could he?

Anonymous said...

I don't think Ming was speaking for anyone other than himself on this occasion

Ray Earwicker said...

The confusion that has been created by Ming needs to be resolved ASAP. It undermines our credibility and could give the opposition a field day, if correct. I have no wish to renege on an earlier promise to hold a referendum and incur the public's wrath as the Tories have done!

Dingdongalistic said...

We shouldn't have a referendum on the EU again. Why not simply do our bit to make it more democratic, such as making the commissioner appointed via open election?