People’s Pledge to let the voters decide

Written By: Kelvin Hopkins
Published: April 18, 2011 Last modified: April 18, 2011

The People’s Pledge, which launched on March 15, is spearheading a campaign to secure a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. It has support from across the political spectrum, with trade unionists, business leaders and MPs from left and right.

We have reached a stage where EU directives now account for approximately half of national law – and this is before the Lisbon Treaty has really kicked in – with Britain having less than 10 per cent of the votes in the key decision-making bodies. Some of the directives coming out of Brussels have huge implications for the organisation and delivery of public services. We have seen the profitable parts of the Royal Mail handed over to big private companies and the railway system fragmented. Now, as Ed Miliband made clear in the House of Commons on March 16, the coalition’s National Health Service reforms will, because of EU competition law, open the door to yet more privatisation. David Cameron could not come back on this point.

With plans in the pipeline for a further new treaty to establish what German Chancellor Angela Merkel calls “European economic governance” – in other words, the top-down application of monetarist policies by the unelected European Commission – there is a growing realisation that power is inexorably being centralised in Brussels. Whether you believe this to be a good or a bad development, one thing surely all democrats can agree on is that this extraordinary transfer of power cannot continue without the full consent of the electorate.

While those who initiated the People’s Pledge campaign are primarily Eurosceptic, it has support from those who take a different, pro-EU view, but who wish to see the issue properly resolved by a vote of the British people. Labour MP Keith Vaz, a former Europe minister, is supporting the campaign on that basis and has joined us. So has Green MP Caroline Lucas.

A number of Labour MPs are members of the People’s Pledge advisory council, including John Cryer, Kate Hoey, Austin Mitchell and me. Jenny Jones the Green London Assembly Member and her party’s London mayoral candidate, is also a member. Former Tribune editor Mark Seddon is campaign director and the group is chaired by economist John Mills, the secretary of Labour Euro Safeguards Campaign.

Successive governments have refused to hold a referendum on the EU and promises of one by the three major political parties were ditched before the last general election. Recent polling carried out for the campaign for the People’s Pledge show that twice as many voters want to vote on the EU as on changing Britain’s system. There is a deep desire among millions of citizens to have a vote on the EU.

The pro-EU media, from The Guardian to the BBC, seek to portray Eurosceptics as simply a right-wing group. That is simply not true. Millions of working-class people, socialists and trade unionists believe the EU to be a neo-liberal construct, promoting free-market capitalism with privatisation, competition rules, economic liberalism and unaccountable control of monetary policy by bankers.

Moreover, where referendums have been held elsewhere in the EU, the left has been the decisive force in securing “No” votes, often in opposition to the political elites of their own parties. In France and the Netherlands, millions voted against the proposed EU constitution, and the left was the key factor in both those votes. Extraordinarily, the results of these votes were simply ignored by the simple expedient of re-labelling the document as “the Lisbon Treaty”. The left was also the driving force in the first Irish referendum and before that in the Swedish vote against joining the euro.

But fundamental to the debate is concern about democracy. Do we govern ourselves through our elected parliaments or do we accept the substantial and continuing shift of political power from the governments of member states to the EU? I wish to see a Labour government coming into office on a democratic socialist platform and free to rebuild what Margaret Thatcher and her successors have destroyed. I do not wish to see such a government told by the EU that its policies are unacceptable and menaced by legal threats.

Democrats from left and right want to be able to choose who governs them and for such governments to enact policies they commit to in their manifestoes. Some will choose the EU and others will choose national parliaments, but we should have that choice.

I am among those on the left who believe that Europe can and should in future comprise a free association of independent democratic states working together for mutual agreement on specific matters, but not governed by a supranational structure taking power to itself and away from national parliaments. Norway and Switzerland have good relations with the EU, but are not members of it. Britain could happily enjoy a similar relationship and after a possible “No” vote in our own referendum, other member states might choose to follow that example and promote a happier, more comradely and democratic Europe for the future.

Kelvin Hopkins is Labour MP for Luton North. You can sign up to the People’s Pledge at www.peoplespledge.org.


1 reply to “People’s Pledge to let the voters decide

  1. Will Podmore

    Good article!
    We want more referendums, which rightly take power away from discredited politicians.
    But even more, we need a referendum on the life-and-death matter of our EU membership.

    In his excellent book A Comparative Study of Referendums: Government by the People (2nd edition, Manchester University Press, 2005) Matt Qvortrup, the Chair of Politics at the Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, studied the theory and practice of referendums.

    Direct democracy, including referendums, complements representative democracy, contrary to the dogma of parliamentary sovereignty. John Locke argued that parliament was not sovereign because its power was only lent by the people, who are the ultimate sovereign power.

    After the Danish referendum on the EU’s Maastricht Treaty, a survey found that voters’ knowledge surpassed that of non-specialist MPs: 90% had a reasonable knowledge of the issue. This contradicts the elitist prejudices of all too many MPs, who never doubt their own ability to decide what is best for the country.

    As political scientist Vernon Bogdanor noted, “the arguments against the referendums are also arguments against democracy.” So, to refuse a referendum on the issue of increasing EU integration, on which all the parliamentary parties promised a referendum, is to oppose democracy.

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