Stuart Coster is co-founder of the all-party EU referendum campaign The People’s Pledge.
The EU Referendum Bill returns to the House of Lords tomorrow. During its Second Reading debate last Friday, a shocking number of misapprehensions, misrepresentations and even disturbingly anti-democratic arguments were advanced by some peers in opposition to the Bill.
No-one can legitimately dispute that the Lords has the right or the duty to scrutinise and amend legislation, as a vital check and balance of our democratic system. But the Bill has already been subject to a great deal of scrutiny by the House of Commons. As Lord Kakkar, a crossbencher, cautioned during last week’s debate: “your Lordships need to be sensitive to the circumstances in which we have received the Bill.”
So my organisation – the People’s Pledge campaign for an EU referendum – has published an Open Letter to Members of the House of Lords addressing some of the most outrageous claims about the Bill made during last week’s debate. We’re asking supporters of an EU referendum to print out and mail a copy of this letter to at least one peer on our new League Table of those who have so far been involved in the debate – and, of course, to any other peers they choose.
Here are a few examples of those dodgy claims and our responses:
Claim 1: ‘The EU Referendum Bill is a ‘partisan’ party-political Bill designed only to help the Conservative party combat UKIP’.
This claim ignores numerous polls that show a large majority of the British people – way beyond the support base of any one party – wants an EU referendum. As some peers rightly commented during last Friday’s debate, the “settled will” of the people is clear, and will be ignored or blocked at this stage only at considerable risk to the reputation of the House of Lords. The People’s Pledge alone has over 131,000 supporters, including 93 MPs and nearly 400 Councillors, from all parties and holding all opinions on EU membership.
Looking at the timeline of the Prime Minister’s change of heart on an EU vote, UKIP’s role was tenuous at best. David Cameron started to shift policy in favour of an EU referendum in September 2012, talking then of “a new settlement and fresh consent”. UKIP’s surprise up-step in performance at the Corby by-election came two months later, with the Rotherham and Eastleigh ones later still. So why would David Cameron’s move have been motivated by UKIP, who at that point had not shown signs of advancing further than at the 2010 election?
His move to back giving people a say on EU membership was far more likely a response to the huge public support for an EU referendum that the People’s Pledge had, earlier that year, been dramatically demonstrating via local referendums in the marginal constituencies of Thurrock, Cheadle and Hazel Grove – and planned to continue doing in other marginal seats.
Claim 2: ‘The Bill deserves proper scrutiny and, if appropriate, amendment’.
The EU Referendum Bill has already received a great deal of scrutiny from MPs. In addition to many hours of debate at 2nd and 3rd Readings, MPs had six days of Committee Stage debate and three days of Report Stage debate. Thanks, ironically, to the Bill’s opponents, MPs considered an extraordinary (relative to the length of the Bill) 184 amendments, six new schedules and one new clause – and rejected them all.
These proposed amendments covered a diverse range of matters, such as the date and length of the poll; the electorate; the question and its translation into other languages; the powers of the Secretary of State; a variety of potential consultations, inquiries, committees and commissions; publications relating to the debate; additional voting methods; minimum turnouts for a valid result; conduct and facilities for the two official campaigns, and the addition of further provisos before a vote could be held.
The highest vote for any amendment was 29, and not once did the Bill’s opponents vote against it as a whole, resulting in it passing its 2nd and 3rd Readings with strong, unanimous support.
Claim 3: ‘The case for remaining a member of the EU is so overwhelming that people must not be permitted to vote on it’.
It’s clear from some contributions to the debate, such as Lord Mandelson’s description of a referendum as a “lottery”, that more than a few opponents of an EU vote are motivated by the kind of anti-democratic ‘High Tory’ sentiment that attempted to block the extension of the franchise to the working classes and women in the late 19th century. No-one recalls Lord Mandelson describing any of the many referendums organised by Labour when in power in such terms. Worse, the logic of such arguments could easily be extended to the holding of elections. Advancing a partisan case on one possible outcome of an EU referendum to justify blocking a vote is a profoundly undemocratic attitude and those using such arguments must accept that label.
It is also perplexing why those who claim that the case for remaining in the EU is overwhelming should, by seeking to block an EU vote, wish to trumpet the message that they lack faith in the strength of their own arguments. The likes of Lord Mandelson as well as others such as Baroness (Shirley) Williams appear not to have the courage to put their pro-EU arguments to the democratic test.
Claim 4: ‘Businesses are concerned about the ‘uncertainty’ of an EU vote’
A significant British Chambers of Commerce from May/June last year showed the vast majority of businesses (77 per cent) in fact support a referendum on EU membership. Nearly 4,000 businesses of all sizes and in all sectors were polled, making this the most significant test of business opinion on the subject so far.
The views of Nissan, Honda, Hitachi, the CBI and whoever else on the effects of Britain leaving the EU are a factor for people to weigh up when voting in the referendum itself – not in the decision about whether to give people a say. It is scaremongering to suggest that any company has threatened to withdraw its investment in the UK simply because we are considering holding a referendum.
Again, this claim also raises a question of its proponents about their commitment to democracy. The prospect of elections every five years could well be regarded as provoking similar uncertainty about the business environment that may develop as a result of the outcome. Yet no-one appears to be proposing that elections, for reasons of business ‘stability’, should not be held. Democracy is inherently uncertain. What alternative are those who have a problem with this proposing?
Claim 5: ‘We should only have an in/out referendum the next time the EU proposes a rule / treaty change’
There is literally no connection between a new treaty or potential further transfer of power to the EU at some point being proposed and only then allowing people to make a decision about our EU membership as a whole. Why is it necessary to wait indefinitely for such a future rule change to then hold an in/out vote? This is a complete non-sequitur. As such, those advancing this case appear only to be engaging in a dishonest and unfortunately anti-democratic attempt to kick an EU referendum into the long-grass and, conflicting with public opinion, preventing one ever being held. Those complaining about an ‘arbitrary date’ in the EU Referendum Bill must explain why instead they advocate an arbitrary wait before giving people a say on EU membership.
Claim 6: ‘This Bill must not pass because no parliament should attempt to bind its successor’
All legislation binds future parliaments until such time as there is a majority for its amendment or repeal. So the logic of this claim runs counter to the way its proponents must know our legislative system works. It would be technically possible for a government of a different persuasion elected in 2015 to amend or repeal an EU Referendum Act, as with any legislation, and as often happens to existing legislation following a change of party in government. So an EU Referendum Act would be no more ‘binding’ on the next parliament than any other law.
What obviously concerns opponents of the Bill hiding behind this claim is that such a move would be politically very difficult, inherently acknowledging the strength of public opinion in favour of an EU referendum. So this claim doesn’t just fail as a justification to oppose the EU Referendum Bill. It also marks out those advancing it as seeking to obstruct public opinion on an EU referendum specifically.
Take action by downloading and posting a copy of the open letter to members of the House of Lords via the People’s Pledge website.