Referendum Rebels: how far is too far?

The row brewing within the Labour Party over whether or not to withdraw the whip from the IWannaReferendum Three is an interesting one.

Predictably, over at Iain Dale’s gaffer, the cries are all “Stalinist!” even after I pointed out that the only party to withdraw the whip over a vote on a treaty referendum is the Conservative Party and FedUp reminded them about Howard Flight. Field, Hooey and Stuart are being hailed as giants and giantesses of political stature.

But hang on a minute. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with their stance, they are supporting a campaign that is actively campaigning against Labour MPs in marginal seats. In the case of Stuart, she is a member of the advisory group which presumably agreed that strategy.

And what is Iain’s view of rebels who happen to believe in something he doesn’t share? Like Clare Short?

If I were a Labour supporter I would be furious at the kick in the teeth she has administered to the Party which made her.

The gulag was too good for her – but what’s the difference?

A couple of footnotes. I observed two weeks ago that had just 35,000 signatures on it – in six months they got 5,000 fewer signatures than the Independent got in a month for electoral reform. Now it has 36,000 signatures – this is not a campaign that is going anywhere.

Back in September I predicted that Gordon Brown had a strategy aimed at boring the public to death on Europe. Despite the fact that events took a life of their own regarding the early election – and a May poll is obviously right out now – I stand by the bore-us theory and as far as I can see it’s working (why are the Tories floundering in the polls at the moment just as the Lib Dems and Labour are rallying?).

And before we get too chummy with Labour, we should remember this report by Frank Field of what Hoon has been saying about what the Eurosceptics tactics should be:

“The chief whip suggested we should instead campaign in Liberal seats. I am happy to take that idea on board. I am in the business of ensuring that Labour fulfils its manifesto pledge.”

I’m not sure what’s worse – Hoon’s “principled” stance or his understanding of basic strategy (bear in mind this man sent thousands of troops into Iraq).


  1. Given the sheer volume of Web ads, both banner and context-driven, they have been slathering on every political website I’ve seen for weeks, it’s quite impressive how little traction they’ve got. Like Rudy Giuliani spending $50 million to win one delegate.

  2. Labour would be quite right to withdraw the whip, as the rebels are actively campaigning against elected party members.

    At a deeper level, we are in no position to profit form this, as our own position on Europe is untenable. Government by referendum is profoundly undemocratic, and we should say so.

  3. I think part of the issue here is that with labour now lacking a real internal democracy, MP’s out of step with the current leadership feel they have no way to sell their views except by breaking party line like this.

  4. agentmancuso: Government by referendum would indeed by undemocratic, but I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting it. As I’ve remarked before, the Tories only support referendums that suit their agenda and vice versa.

    But there is nothing undemocratic about the idea of ratifying or annulling certain specific decisions by referendum. The issue is how you decide which issues should be decided in that way and which ones shouldn’t be. I think we can all agree that having an ad hoc approach of saying it should be used for EU treaties but nothing else is daft.

    tinter: I think there’s a lot of truth to that, although I struggle to sympathise with Field, Stuart and Pfooey as they’ve always been arch modernisers. When Blair was dismantling Labour democracy, they were cheerleading at the sidelines.

  5. James: there is nothing undemocratic about the idea of ratifying or annulling certain specific decisions by referendum.

    I disagree. Democracy depends not only on the expression of individual opinions, but on the functioning existence of the stable processes and institutions necessary to implement those opinions. Government by referendum is populist demagoguery masquerading as democracy.

  6. agentmancuso: You need to decide what you’re objecting to first of all. Are you opposed to ratification/vetoes, or “government by referendum”. The two are totally different things.

    I’m not in favour of referendums willy-nilly. But there is a world of difference between that and, where there is clear public demand, holding the occasional ballot on a specific issue. More to the point, if you don’t have that then all too often the “expression of individual opinions” which you pay lip service to is run roughshod over.

    The People’s Veto system that Chris Huhne campaigned on during the leadership election could not be described as “government by referendum” in a million years. What it offered was an important check and balance.

  7. I don’t think that ratification/vetoes and government by referendum are two different things: one is a subset of the other.

    In Scotland, the fiasco of the May 2007 Holyrood elections led to the LibDems refusing to work with the SNP unless the latter dropped their election promise to hold a referendum on ‘independence’. I’d like to think that this was a principled decision, based on opposition to populist gimmicks, rather than a convenient sop to Labour, but I have my doubts.

  8. Since we can’t even agree that there is a fundamental difference between governance and legislature, I’m not sure there is any point in continuing this thread.

  9. You’ll have to forgive my being slow on the uptake, but I fail to see why the difference between governance and legislature is of any relevance? Whichever part of the state machinery is at stake, the act of singling out one issue on which to hold a referendum is artificial, random and populist.

  10. Liberal Democrats have never been opposed in principle to referenda, either in the UK or Scotland, and I dont’ know where agentmancuso gets this idea from.

    “the act of singling out one issue on which to hold a referendum is artificial, random”

    Only if you let it be. What we need is a political consensus on what kinds of decisions require referenda, and to apply that consensus to all such decisions. I would support one that says significant constitutional matters concerning institutional structures and the divisions of power always require referenda.

    In Scotland, we said we didn’t support Scottish independence. Referenda, as James said, should be about confirming a decision a government _wants_to_take_. We didnt’ support the independence referendum because we dont support independence, not because we dont support referenda!

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