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Democrat - March-April 2008 (Number 107)

Only 29 Labour MPs kept manifesto promise and voted for a referendum

Report by Brian Denny

Demand for a referendum to let the people decide

The failure to win a referendum in parliament on the renamed EU constitution recently revealed many fractures in British politics not least the almost complete collapse of the Left in parliament.

Only 248 MPs voted for a referendum amendment on the Lisbon Treaty while 311 voted against.

Only 29 Labour MPs found it possible to defy the bullying of government whips and keep the promise they made to their electorates in 2005 by backing the call for a referendum.

Sadly most of them were not from what many would consider to be the most progressive wing of the party. Kate Hoey, Gisela Stuart and Frank Field must have found themselves standing in the lobby saying "so where's the Left"?

After all, didn't TUC delegates recently demand a referendum on a treaty that threatened to privatise public services, dismantle democracy, militarise the EU and create a neo-liberal, neo-colonial empire in Europe?

It is indeed sobering to think that MPs campaigning against war abroad and privatisation in their communities have voted to deprive millions of people of the right to vote against the most neo-liberal and anti-democratic document the EU has ever produced.

Worse still, it wasn't even a matter of what they thought of the document or the EU: it was simply fulfilling a manifesto commitment for a referendum made in the last election.

Even many Lib Dem MPs that support this renamed constitution defied Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg's demand to sit on the fence and voted for a referendum. They just could not face breaking an election promise that all the main parties made in 2005.

Yet anyone who thinks that this result, born of opportunism, deceit and outright political thuggery, will be accepted by millions of ordinary trade unionists is very much mistaken.

As Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn wrote in the Morning Star on the day of the vote, "there is a much higher level of public understanding of the issue and a much higher preparedness to engage in debate than political commentators have given credit for".

This was also expressed by Lib Dem MP John Pugh, who spoke of "a gaping democratic deficit" in EU affairs.

"Not to have a referendum or similar public consultation runs the significant risk of feeding this sense of public alienation," he said. He's got that right.

Even the 'debate' promised in parliament on the treaty has been widely derided as a pantomime nothing like the 'line-by-line scrutiny' promised.

The Labour-dominated European Scrutiny Committee's findings that the old Constitution and the Lisbon treaty was after all the same thing, despite claims from ministers otherwise, was ignored.

Even Tony Benn's last minute plea to MPs pointing out that "the Lisbon Treaty transfers important powers which belong to us, to others in Europe we do not elect and cannot remove" brought a collective shrug from these erstwhile class warriors.

Stony-faced Europe minister Jim Murphy's main argument for opposing a referendum was the fact that the Tories had consistently rammed through EU treaties from the Single European Act to Maastricht through similar parliamentary skullduggery and contempt for democracy and so would new Labour.

"We've always done it this way," he said, revealing how the political class operates in this country.

Perhaps the most bizarre excuse for breaking this election pledge came from Diane Abbot MP who said that "on the one hand I think that we should have a referendum because we promised one, but actually if you had a referendum it would be disastrous for the Labour Party because you would lose".

On that basis nobody should have opposed the war in Iraq "because Labour would lose". The future of democracy here and across the continent of Europe is ill-served by such a sloppy and ill-considered approach.

It will also not be missed by voters in the next election when Diane Abbot's prediction could unfortunately come true due to the actions of Labour MPs that flatly refused to honour a solemn promise they made in 2005.

See report on lobby of parliament