Stuart Coster is co-founder of the all-party EU referendum campaign The People’s Pledge.
The EU Referendum Bill tomorrow rises phoenix-like from its earlier immolation in the House of Lords to receive a repeat Second Reading in the Commons.
Nestling this time under the wing of Bob Neill MP, this rare bird – a Private Member’s Bill with Prime Ministerial support – will emerge to again face from some quarters a confused combination of visceral opposition and staged disinterest.
Despite receiving at its last Commons outing the overwhelming backing of MPs, the Bill was killed off primarily by a trio of Labour peers – Lords Lipsey, Foulkes and Anderson – assisted by the Plaid Cymru peer Lord Wigley and two never-elected former civil servants, Lords Kerr and Hannay.
Striking during the Bill’s previous Second Reading were the truly low-grade contributions by several Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, whose criticisms of the Bill were misleading, ridiculous and, in some cases, glaringly anti-democratic.
In a perhaps over-ambitious bid to deter those responsible from making the same embarrassing mistakes again, here at the People’s Pledge EU referendum campaign we’ve snipped from the Hansard record of the previous debate in 2013 a selection of contributions to list our Heroes & Zeroes of the EU Referendum Bill. Naturally, we couldn’t let some of the claims of the Zeroes go unanswered.
Top Five Zeroes
1. Douglas Alexander (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (Lab):
“The Bill reflects an arbitrary date unrelated to the likely timetable of major treaty change.”
Reality: Those complaining about an “arbitrary date” in the Bill must explain why instead they advocate an arbitrary wait before giving people a say on EU membership. Truly unrelated in this debate are the prospect of a further transfer of power to the EU at some point being proposed, and only then allowing people to make a decision about the nearly 40 years of rule changes since we last voted on EU membership. This concept is a complete non sequitur, and only reveals desperation to prevent a referendum ever being held.
“I believe that the case for membership of the European Union is clear,”
Reality: Great, Mr Alexander. Then why not demonstrate that belief by putting it to a public vote? Many pro-EU MPs are backing an EU referendum because they are confident of their case for staying in, and recognise that the EU cannot continue to exercise such extensive powers without democratic consent. It is extraordinarily arrogant, and broadcasts utter disdain for democracy to proffer one particular opinion as justification for denying others their say.
2. Steve Reed (Croydon North) (Lab):
“The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary seem to be prepared to put at risk the jobs and investment that Europe brings just to satisfy the obsessions of their Back Benchers.”
Reality: This suggestion conveniently ignores the huge weight of poll evidence showing the public as a whole strongly backs an EU referendum, including, two recent polls have shown, a 45 per cent plurality of Labour voters. With 34 Labour MPs and three major trade unions – Unite, GMB & the RMT – now also backing a referendum, Labour opponents of an EU vote would do better to note the alternative opinion within their own party than tat in others.
3. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab):
“As we all know, it is constitutionally impossible for this Parliament to make a decision that binds a future Parliament.”
Reality: Each piece of legislation binds future parliaments until such time that there is a majority for its amendment or repeal. If this is a reason not to pass laws today, then the entire day-to-day business of Parliament is being brought into question.
4. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab):
“Does the hon. Member for Stockton South think it is in the interests of this country that we should have four years of uncertainty for business from his Bill?”
Reality: The evidence is now accumulating that the prospect of an EU referendum has had no negative effect on business investment decisions.
UK Trade & Investment’s (UKTI) annual report, published in July, showed the UK is attracting the highest levels of inward investment on record – 14 per cent more projects in 2013-14 than in the previous year. In June, Ernst and Young’s annual investment survey found that Britain had advanced three places to fifth spot in worldwide rankings – and number one spot in Europe – as a target for foreign direct investment over the next three years.
It’s possible to exchange the views of individuals all day long, but overall figures show the prospect of an EU referendum is not having an adverse effect on inward investment. Those who suggest that any company is intending to withdraw its investment in the UK merely because we are considering holding an EU referendum are simply scaremongering, and playing politics with people’s jobs.
5. Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD):
“The Liberal Democrats are not willing to risk millions of British jobs by voting no. Europe means jobs, and we should not put those jobs in jeopardy.”
Reality: The number of jobs that may or may not be at stake from a decision to leave the EU is clearly a matter for the referendum debate itself. It is not relevant to the question of whether people should be given the chance to debate such arguments and decide if they are convincing.
Thankfully, during last year’s debate, there were many more Heroes to defend the Bill and an EU referendum. So here are our…
Top Twelve Heroes
1. James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con):
“I think that Members on the other side should consider their position very carefully indeed, because at the next election the public will not forgive Members who do not trust them”
2. Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab):
“I want to say how much I support the idea, and have supported the idea for some time, of the British people being allowed to have their say on membership of the European Union . I do not think that political parties should feel they cannot trust the British people on this important issue.”
3. Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con):
“There are many of us who campaigned for yes to Britain in the 1975 referendum campaign, but to paraphrase Goethe, that which thy forefathers bequeath thee, one must earn anew if one wants to possess it. There comes a point where one has to demonstrate the wholehearted consent of the British people to our membership of the European Union”
4. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab):
“We are speaking for millions of Labour voters – perhaps not every Labour voter, but certainly millions of them-who equally, like many Government Members, want a referendum.”
5. Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con):
“It is worth pointing out that a number of trade unions are actively campaigning for a referendum . to suggest that the trade unions are opposed to a referendum or in favour of continued membership or continued escalation of our union within the EU is not strictly true.”
6. Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con):
“It is estimated that 35 million people – 35 million voters – have effectively been disfranchised by the continuous evolution, since 1975, of giving away more and more powers as well as the right to determine the kind of policies and government that they want. That is completely unacceptable.”
7. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab):
“This is a matter not just of us trusting the British voters, but of the possibility of them trusting us a little bit more in return, and my God, we are in need of that.”
8. Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP):
“If we can have referendums on regional assemblies, devolved government, police commissioners, local mayors and the alternative vote, how on earth can it be logical, sensible or defensible for any Member of this House or any party to take the position . that the British people will uniquely be denied their say?”
9. Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab):
“It is time, after those treaties, that the people were given a chance to have that say in a referendum. My party’s position on a referendum can, I hope, be improved.”
10. John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con):
“This debate – this issue – is about the principle of a referendum, not the relative merits of in or out . Many commentators do not realise that although Europe, as a subject on its own, may rank only 10th or 12th in people’s order of preferences, it is very much entwined with our conversations about the economy or immigration”
11. Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab):
“It is common sense that we need a referendum. Europe has changed so much .. No one under the age of 55 has had a say on this”
12. John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con):
“There was also [in the 1975 referendum] the leaflet paid for by the taxpayer that went through every single door in the country which stated: “No important new policy can be decided in Brussels or anywhere else without the consent of a British Minister answerable to a British government and British Parliament.” Since that time, we have seen those assurances undermined time and again.”