DEBUG: blog_post
13 Apr, 2018

The 1975 Referendum worked well for the Labour Party

The Labour leader backs Brexit and that is party policy. Most Labour party voters back Remain. Labour MPs are divided. Awkward. London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg looks at what MPs can learn from the lessons of 1975.

How I voted

I was 20 at the time of the 1975 referendum and spoiled my ballot paper in protest at the 1974 Labour Government using this device to paper over the cracks in the Party. I believed in Remain then as now.

By 2016 I had become less sanctimonious about the reasons why people did things and more focussed on the substance. I voted Remain.

Principled arguments for a referendum

Partly Labour was just having the normal party political argument with the Conservatives that they would have obtained better terms. (The actual improvement they obtained in the terms of EEC entry was pretty minimal.)

There was a principled dispute about whether a referendum was a political necessity for entry. Further, Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath had promised that there would be no entry into what was then the EEC without the “full-hearted consent of Parliament and People”. Some thought that meant that he had promised a referendum. Labour was split on the question.

Party management

Whatever the ostensible high purposes of the 1975 referendum, its main purpose must have been to enable a deeply divided Labour movement to get over its splits on the substantive issue of EEC membership without breaking up as opponents of a firm party line would have left.

A referendum had first been proposed by Tony Benn in the late 1960s and then again after the Labour Party’s 1970 defeat. James Callaghan said that the referendum might be “a rubber life-raft into which the whole Party may one day have to climb”.

145 Labour MPs had voted against EU membership and 137 for. The TUC was anti EEC. The pre-referendum 1975 Labour Party conference (with trades union block votes) had voted against continued membership by almost 2:1. The leader, Harold Wilson, supported membership.

In the 1975 referendum campaign the Party as such did not campaign, though individuals did on both sides. 7 of 23 Labour cabinet members sought withdrawal.

Broadly a Success

Though it would be wrong to suggest the referendum result showed enthusiasm for Europe, the convincing outcome (67R:33L on a 65% turnout) meant that the plan worked. That is absolutely true in the short term. In practice for most of the political nation EU membership disappeared as a salient issue for a generation.

Of course, the EU question did not totally go away, not from Labour and not from the country: in 1981 the SDP split off after Labour had been defeated in the 1979 general election and moved to the left. Michael Foot’s 1983 manifesto (“the longest suicide note in history”) committed the party to leaving the European Economic Community. However, UKIP’s predecessor was not founded until 1991.

Harold Wilson, the only Prime Minister to have triumphed over the European issue in British politics, was pleased by the effect of the referendum in his time. He wrote in his memoirs: “The highest aim of leadership is to secure policies adequate to deal with any situation, without major confrontations, splits and resignations. It may be bad for the headlines and news placards, but it has been sought and achieved by our greatest leaders, …”.

And now?

Labour now face a similar dilemma. Its leader and Labour Leave want out. Remain-Labour and Labour against Brexit back Remain. Probably most Labour MPs are for Remain at any rate at heart. Most Labour-held constituencies are for Leave, though most of the Labour voters in those constituencies are for Remain. Overall, 70% of Labour voters back Remain (March 2018).

There is no obvious way forward that will unite the party’s wings other than tactically. They will all oppose Theresa May’s Brexit, but they will fall apart on the choice between Remain and a better Brexit, which would anyway be unobtainable at that point.

Labour’s plan for November 2018

Keir Starmer's speech on 26 March 2018 sets out the policy. After saying “I want the Brexit talks to succeed.” he explains what should happen if Parliament votes down Theresa May’s deal: “Labour’s preference … is clear: The Government should listen to Parliament’s concerns, go back to the negotiating table and secure a better deal that works for Britain.”

That would be pointless. The EU will not make any big changes at the last minute and presumably not any real concession; the time to obtain a fundamental change in the Government’s stance is now, while negotiations are in still hand. So that preferred Labour plan would just lose time, of which there would then only be four months or so. Best to drop it now.

Labour’s other options for November 2018

Labour could try to replace the Conservatives in government without a general election. That would require a pretty fundamental realignment of MPs’ party loyalties.

Labour could seek to obtain a pre-Brexit general election. Its election manifesto could include a referendum on the terms, though fitting in both an election and a referendum before Brexit day, and asking Brenda from Bristol to vote in both, might be a bit awkward.

So Labour would face a choice of whether to campaign – as in 2017 - for a better Brexit; or whether to change stance and campaign for Remain. Many Labour party supporters are mistaken over Labour’s stance. On a scale of 1 [Labour is completely against Brexit] to 5, 40% put Labour on points 1 or 2 (December 2017). Most students who supported Labour think that Labour and Jeremy Corbyn stand for Remain (separate polling also in December 2017). So Labour’s ambiguous rhetoric on Brexit has worked well tactically.

But a December 2018 election would have to be conducted with greater clarity on the Party’s stance. If the Party ties itself to Brexit it will alienate some of its voters, especially young voters. They may react against Labour both in that 2018 election and in the future. Although tying the party to Remain risks losing Labour Leave voters, December 2017 polling shows the balance of advantage amongst Labour voters would be if Labour policy was for Remain.

Labour should back a referendum on the terms

It would be democratic, referring to the electorate the next key decision. It would represent good government, obtaining approval to the project plan.

A referendum would have neutralised the issue by the time of the 2022 general election. We will be in or out, normal party political rivalry will have resumed and we can all focus on making the best of it, whatever “it” is.

As in 1975 the party could be neutral in the referendum, with individual members choosing which side to campaign for and coming together again afterwards. That has not worked for the Conservatives because Brexit is still a live issue. But once the question is settled it should work. It did in 1975.

Obtaining a referendum would be a victory for Labour over the Prime Minister.

60% of Labour voters want a referendum on the terms (March 2018)

Almost 80% of Labour members want a referendum on the terms (January 2018).

What about the Conservatives?

The Conservatives are less visibly divided on Brexit. Greater party loyalty, fear of local Conservative associations, a worry that a Corbyn government would be more damaging than Brexit mean that fewer Conservative MPs are rebelling against the party line – though enough might to enable an amendment for a referendum to succeed.

That may change. Theresa May’s party-unifying tactics – talk tough slogans and defer decisions – will run out of road when there is clarity on how the Irish Border issue is to be resolved and the Framework for Future Relations sets out the key principles beyond doubt.

If at that point the many Conservative MPs who in their hearts believe in Remain become as rebellious as the Brexiters have long been, then Theresa May would do well to take a leaf out of Harold Wilson’s manual for Prime Ministers facing a divided party.


All MPs should support a referendum on the terms on public policy grounds. But the lesson of 1975 is clear: a referendum where a party is neutral would allow a divided party to overcome its splits in a way that other options would not.




The Wikipedia entry on the 1975 referendum

A 1976 book by David Butler and Uwe Kitzinger tells you more about the 1975 referendum than you might ever have wished to know

Some local colour: BBC “On this day” and Open University: True Stories of the 1975 EEC Referendum

Two readable speeches on the 1975 referendum by Professor Vernon Bogdanor in April 2014 and May 2016

An academic colloquium held on 10 June 2016 compared the two referenda




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