The pressure on the main political parties to offer a referendum on EU membership increased dramatically in the wake of the European Parliamentary elections. Despite this, I think it is perfectly acceptable for Labour to rule out offering a possible referendum.
The success of UKIP in Britain has been mirrored by the success of Eurosceptic parties across Europe. Even before this, the pressure on the main parties to offer a referendum led David Cameron to pledge to hold one in 2017. However, the ‘but’ in this pledge was that this would require the Conservatives to be in power in 2017. This is far from a certain prospect. Therefore, the hopes of a referendum in the near future rely more heavily on the promises of the Labour Party.
Ed Miliband and his party have been under increasing pressure to pledge a referendum. Not only have many commentators called on them to do so, Unite leader Len McCluskey has also urged them to do so. As a hugely important financial backer of the party, his words carry much influence and significance.
Many have articulated the view that it is undemocratic to not offer a referendum. They proclaim that, as no EU referendum has been held since 1975, an entire generation has lived with the result of that past referendum and had no say in one themselves. I am not entirely sure this is a fair criticism.
If Labour were to propose that they will never hold a referendum, even if the effects of EU membership were entirely disastrous for the British people, that would be undemocratic. If Labour were to legally ban a referendum from ever taking place, that would be undemocratic. If Labour were to refuse the guarantee of an automatic referendum when significant power changes occur, that would be undemocratic. Labour have done none of these, they have simply not pledged to hold a referendum.
As a political party in a representative democracy they have every right to decide on their own policy. Democracy does not always mean direct involvement through referenda. Democracy is not limited to just voting. Labour represent the interests of their voters and members. If they believe it is within their interests to focus on other issues, as EU membership is not causing significant economic or political harm, they do not have to offer a referendum. It may be the case that the country does indeed become so divided over the issue that a referendum is needed, but political parties are entitled to make a judgement on that themselves. That is perfectly acceptable in a representative democracy.
Referendums come with two negative connotations. The first is that they acknowledge and draw attention to an issue with the status quo, so they should not be promised lightly. The second is that they create instability over the future, which is a huge barrier to creating policy in the meantime. A huge number of possible issues could be voted on by the public, such as our status as a monarchy, independence for each of the home nations, NATO membership, UN membership, WTO membership and all sorts of government policy. The reason they are not offered is that the resulting instability is considered worse than any dissatisfaction they may currently cause. It is very unwise to just grant a referendum for the sake of it.
It is acceptable to call for a referendum on the grounds that a lack of one is causing a substantial problem for the country. This is a matter of opinion, of course, which makes it a problematic situation. Personally, I do not believe it is necessary to offer one, but that is not the issue. Labour, as the elected opposition, have a responsibility to analyse the situation for themselves and make their own judgement on the matter. They should fight this issue on the grounds that offering a referendum and fixating on the issue is a poor choice. This should not warrant the level of criticism it is currently attracting.