As the Commons begins to discuss the Brexit plebiscite how should Labour handle the referendum? By far the most important intervention was not a speech in the EU referendum bill debate but the warning from a troika of pro-European union leaders – Frances O’Grady of the TUC, Dave Prentis of Unison and Sir Paul Kenny of the GMB – that Cameron cannot assume trade union support if he insists on using his “renegotiation” to weaken Social Europe rights.
Every major referendum on Europe so far this century has been lost because the voter base of the left has voted No to Europe even if the organisers of the anti-EU campaigns have been nationalist politicians mainly on the right. The left-behinds and losers of EU integration take their chance in a plebiscite to punish the leaders who urge them onwards to accept more Europe.
If the trade unions swing against Cameron on Europe this will be a far bigger boost for the Brexit camp than anything else. It will also increase the chances of Labour splitting.
Cameron has to be a unifier if he wants to avoid Brexit. As he struggles with his party and its deep Eurosceptic instincts it is also an opportunity for Labour to escape from its navel-gazing eternal post-mortem and again stand for Britain as a whole.
It was François Mitterrand who observed that ‘the trouble with referendums is voters never answer the question.’ He kept France in Europe by the skin of his teeth in 1992 when what he thought would be an easy Oui to the Maastricht Treaty became the narrowest of results. His successor, Jacques Chirac, breezily called a referendum in 2005, assuming that his own party, the French socialists and all men and women of bonne foi would confirm France’s status as a major EU player.
He forgot about the voters. They listened to socialist tribunes who broke with the official pro-EU party line and linked with the far right and what the French call souverainistes to punish the unpopular Chirac by voting Non to Europe. The left won but lost the presidential election in 2007 as voters were unimpressed by a divided socialist party.
The pattern of major EU referendums is that opinion polls start well but then something happens. The Yes camp are the establishment, the money men, the media, the state functionaries, global business but they are out of touch with the deeper resentment of a voting population that feels the EU exists for others, not for them.
David Cameron has taken a huge risk with his Brexit plebiscite. He is a Eurosceptic himself and made concession after concession to anti-EU forces including giving in to the main UKIP demand – an In-Out referendum .
Cameron can easily lose the referendum for Britain. The sight of him and maybe even Rupert Murdoch standing on their heads and swallowing two decades of anti-EU wordage is not appealing to voters. Instead the task falls to Labour with help from the Lib-Dems, alive in spirit if not in seats, to defeat the isolationists and keep Britain in Europe.
The exact nature of the campaign is not important. Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher did not appear on joint platforms in the 1975 but Labour put up John Smith, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and others who argued with passion and persuasion that Britain should remain linked to the continent.
Labour can do no less today even if faced with a referendum called for opportunistic vote-grabbing reasons and now under the control of a cabinet stuffed full of anti-Europeans. Labour’s new leader and those who will form the next Labour cabinet need to shine in this campaign with commitment and conviction.
Labour has to avoid two traps. The first is the lure of left nationalist protectionism that marginalised Labour in the 1980s. There will always be a left critique of the EU but that should be a spur to its reform not a retreat to North Korean style rejection of open Europe.
The second is to play tactical games seeking to trip up Cameron. Yes, he is hypocritical and yes, there will be endless Schadenfreude as the MPs he told to hate the EU now turn on him. But Labour should let the Tories eat each other without seeking its own little opportunisms.
Of course some Labour MPs will say No. In 2005 just before the election I was standing behind the Speaker’s Chair with David Cameron waiting to go into the Chamber. The Tory MP, a fellow of All Souls, Robert Jackson, had just defected to Labour in disgust at the anti-Europeanism that infected his party.
I asked Cameron jokingly who would be the next defector? ‘Kate Hoey,’ he replied without a pause. The redoubtable Ulsterwoman has had trenchant views ever since her days as a National Union of Students leader and her opposition to Europe should be recognised and respected.
But Labour must stand for Britain and against the risk of a return to isolationism. Ever since the Conservatives veered off into anti-EU waters in the 1990s, Labour had stood for Britain in Europe. It should not change now. This is a moment which will define Britain for generations to come. Labour should be on the right side of the argument and show that a Tory change to being pro-EU is welcome and in the national interest. Labour can and must win this vote for Britain and for Europe and our partners everywhere in the world.