Socialist Party documents

British Perspectives, March 2014 congress

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Europe, the Tories and a referendum

71. Only the weakness of the opposition has acted as a cover for the extreme weakness of the coalition, including of its major party. The humiliating defeat of Cameron over Syria gave a glimpse of what could be achieved with a competent opposition. Cameron was forced to declare "I get it". If Labour was remotely capable of serious opposition Cameron could also be forced to say the same on austerity. Thirty Tories voted against the government on Syria, but that has not been the biggest Tory revolt. One hundred and fifty rebelled over same sex marriage, but it is on Europe that the party remains most divided. Faced with the threat of UKIP and an open split in the Tory Party, Cameron has attempted to put the issue to bed by the commitment to a referendum in 2017. However, this has not prevented growing rancour on the issue in the Tory Party. The leadership of the Tory Party is desperate to appease the right-wing backbenchers, but also to avoid undermining the interests of British capitalism. A majority of the British capitalist class fear a referendum would have negative consequences, even if it did eventually vote to stay in the EU. Companies would be less likely to set up base in Britain, and the City of London could see its position undermined as one of the most powerful centres of finance in the world. While a minority of the representatives of finance capitalism does not think this would matter, it is not the view of the majority.

72. It is not clear what Miliband will do on this issue. He has received deputations from other European governments begging him not to promise a referendum. However, with the vast majority of the population supporting the call for a referendum Miliband is under pressure to commit to one from a purely electoral point of view. In addition, some in his party, including Prescott, wrongly think that winning a referendum would 'put the issue to bed'. Others in Labour fear that calling a referendum would dominate the first period, perhaps years, of a new government, distracting from other matters, and do not want to call one for fear of losing. Miliband, like Cameron, also faces pressure from big business and especially finance capitalists who want to stay in the EU.

73. Even Cameron hedges his referendum pledge, which is conditional on the election of a majority Tory government and on unspecified "renegotiation" of EU treaties. Cameron did not pull out all the stops to defend the referendum bill in parliament, which was defeated by Labour and the LibDems in the Lords. There is a strong element of grandstanding, of Cameron using the call for a referendum to position himself against his own right wing and UKIP. The policy may be designed to be dropped in the event of another coalition with the LibDems, though that would cause problems within the Tory party, given the strength of anti-EU feeling in its ranks.

74. If there is a referendum, we will campaign for a vote against EU membership. We will seek the maximum possible unity on the left, proposing a campaign with slogans such as "Out on a socialist basis". We are internationalists. Our opposition to the EU is not based on illusions in British institutions or bourgeois nationalism. We will push for a joint left campaign to adopt a programme along these lines, but should this not be agreed we will, as in TUSC, reserve the right to produce our own material.

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