Hokey Cokey in the Dark – The Risk of an EU Referendum


Ed Miliband’s resistance to hold a straight-up in/out referendum on EU membership isn’t, perhaps, terribly surprising given that the party has been a muted advocate of the European Union for many years now. It also sets up a platform where each of the four major parties now have palpable breathing room between their policies and consequentially something to argue about.

eu referendum

To pretend that the Conservatives have taken an ideological direct-democracy driven stance on the issue would be a gross misrepresentation of the fact that David Cameron has merely been strong-armed into appeasing the UKIP-in-waiting faction of his MPs. What’s perhaps more impressive is that the Prime Minister’s transformation from a referendum-septic to fully fledged advocate happened so gradually that it appears he has managed to convince himself, above all people, that the people-power approach was his policy all along.

The Liberal Democrats and UKIP policies on the referendum are seemingly inconsequential- if Farage were to pull off a miracle and win a general election in the first place, then the mandate for an EU exit would surely be granted and a referendum merely a token gesture of authenticity. Likewise, if the Lib Dems were to defy gravity and soar past not just UKIP but their bedfellows and the Labour party, the country would be in such a state of shock that it would take the electorate a whole five year term to simply work out what happened.

With that in mind, we’re left wandering why Miliband would possibly make what appears to be a concession to Conservative pressure in the first place. Mixed communication over what was said doesn’t appear to have done the party any favours in the short-term, although it at least remains undivided over the European issue. Nevertheless, if the dress code for the 2015 general election is to give the illusion of a ‘rational debate about our EU membership’, would a referendum even guarantee that took place?

Given the palpable demand for a binary public consultation on the issue, one would assume that the UK has a proud history of arrangements of these sorts. Anyone who can remember the referendum on the Alternative Vote system in 2011 however will likely be wary of a rational and constructive discussion taking place over the virtues of our EU membership. As is an increasingly common theme with satirical news coverage, The Daily Mash offered one of the most accurate depictions of Miliband’s pledge and the paradox that embodies the whole debate- membership of the European Union is such a big issue that we couldn’t possibly trust ourselves to make a decision on it.

This isn’t to say that the British public are incapable of making a decision by themselves, but rather that the actors involved in convincing them are unlikely to present any such referendum in a manner that the ‘swing’ EU voters would arrive at a balanced and informed conclusion. More than ever, the undecided would shape the outcome of a referendum on perhaps the single most important question that could be asked of an electorate.

eu graph

With the stakes so high, so the paradox is accentuated. As with the aforementioned AV Referendum, which is the only debate of the modern era that offers some suggestion as to what a debate on the European question would look like, any attempt to condense the complexities of an supranational institution of incomparability into a simple yes/no questions opens the floodgates for the sort of hyperbole this country hasn’t seen since the 2012 Olympics.

Although reflecting so negatively on the AV Referendum may highlighted the embittered nature which I and many of the ‘yes’ camp felt the defeat, the campaigning tactics of neither side of the debate were the best advocates for a world in which representative democracy is supplemented by the irregular call-to-arms of the British electorate on constitutional matters.

If electoral reform experts were to be believed, then the de-facto First Past the Post voting system is the least attractive of the options available, and as such a move to a marginally more complex system where we’re asked to replace the letter X with a system of numbers that never breach the intellectual barrier of reaching double-digits would seem a perfectly attractive option.

What in fact materialised was a purely negative debate that asked the electorate what they hated the most- lazy, lying expenses-fiddling MPs or a voting system that somehow killed newborn children and recklessly slashed the military budget. Rather than offer a balanced debate on the merits of two incredibly similar voting systems, the two sides essentially battled each other two see who could offend the intelligence of the British public the most.

In essence, this highlights the major and unique problem that referendums pose. In traditional political discourse where politicians are the primary advocates of particular positions on an issue, there is a layer of accountability and public pressure that tends to prevent them from making unsubstantiated or extravagant claims in order to win the argument. Referendums, however, allow for independent pressure groups, often without a singular face or direct line of accountability, to push an agenda that has no implications for its advocate’s career or a party’s political trajectory.

All this may sound like a cynical case for undermining the democratic process, but if we were to consider how the EU debate has so far unfolded and the polarising nature of UKIP’s often scaremongering claims, then it becomes ever more obvious that a referendum on our EU membership, which costs approximately 120x more than the alleged £250m figure of the AV Referendum, would only increase the intensity of the debate to a damaging level. Just imagine how many nurses could be hired and pot-holes filled for £30 billion.

There is an appetite for a debate on Europe, and those who advocate our continued membership must do more to make a case for it. The Farage vs Clegg showdown on April 2nd will hopefully be a worthy platform on which this debate can be initiated. But for those sceptical of the merits of interjecting a representative system with a process of decision-making that the electorate is not yet used to, Ed Miliband’s caution over a referendum promise is perhaps the most warranted repsonse of the party leaders so far.

Written on March 13th, 2014