Are the Parliamentary Lib Dems split on the Lisbon Treaty referendum?

by Stephen Tall on February 13, 2008

Yes they are, at least if you believe this morning’s Telegraph report, Nick Clegg faces EU treaty rebellion:

Mr Clegg signalled last month that he would help Labour block a Tory amendment to force a referendum [on Lisbon], saying: “We would vote against a referendum on the treaty.”

But members of Mr Clegg’s shadow cabinet are among a significant number of MPs who are understood to be unhappy with the decision. David Heath, the constitutional affairs spokesman, and Nick Harvey, the defence spokesman, are both understood to have told their constituency parties that they want to see a popular vote.

Neither man has been disciplined for their stance by party whips, which other MPs have seen as a green light to rebel. Of the Lib Dems’ 63 MPs, as many as 16 may be prepared to defy Mr Clegg, either by voting directly for the Tory amendment or by abstaining.

I can’t help finding it sad that the Lib Dems – for a long time the only party pretty much united in favour of a reformed and improved European Union – now face the prospect of being split on a key vote.

One thing’s for sure. The party cannot continue to oppose a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty on the grounds that it would be no more than a proxy for a referendum on EU membership – and then argue in favour of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

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I’m opposed to a refferendum on Lisbon for all sorts of reasons which I won’t detain you with here. However if 16 MP’s ( and its the Telegraph so I will wait and see…) really can’t support the party line we should just have a free vote. In a perverse kind of way I think the new “EU : In or Out ?” policy makes this inevitable.

Now that the party has conceded that we need some sort of vote to renew legitamacy for the EU project it becomes an issue of judgement rather than principle whether we need one on Lisbon. Its going to be very difficult for a liberal party to whip its members against judgement.

I hope the telegraph are just stirring but the figures are accurate then lets just give everyone a free vote and be done with it. lets not have weeks of splits and “Leaders Authorty on the line” stories.

by David Morton on February 13, 2008 at 9:51 pm. Reply #

One thing’s for sure. The party cannot continue to argue that a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty would be no more than a proxy for a referendum on EU membership – and then argue in favour of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU
Err, why? I don’t understand your statement at all.

Surely arguing that the proposed treaty on Lisbon is a proxy for a referendum on EU membership – and therefore we should have a proper, honest referendum on EU membership – is completely honest, straightforward, logical and correct.

by Dominic on February 13, 2008 at 10:28 pm. Reply #

Fair enough, Dominic. Have edited the last para to (hopefully) make my meaning cear.

by Stephen Tall on February 13, 2008 at 10:56 pm. Reply #

I still don’t follow what you mean… Why on earth not? Wanting a referendum on the real issue surely doesn’t entail that we have to support any old referendum on Europe in the meantime.

by Gavin on February 14, 2008 at 12:16 am. Reply #

If you want my humble opinion, there should be a free vote in Parliament, with no party setting an official line and MPs free to follow their own bent in campaigning, as in 1975.

by asquith on February 14, 2008 at 7:58 am. Reply #

4 – because if the Lisbon referendum were all that’s on offer, then surely a proxy referendum is better than none at all?

by Stephen Tall on February 14, 2008 at 8:26 am. Reply #

any front bench spokesman who defy the party line should be sacked. This party has stood on a pro-European platform for decades. Those who call for a referendum do so out of blatant euro-scepticism and nothing at all to do with any kind of improved direct democracy. Too scared of the rabid euro-phobes in the West Country if you ask me.

Nick Harvey has been a disloyal little so and so since the Kennedy days. What’s worse is his cowardly “senior MP” remarks to the press over the years. grow some balls and come out and say it Nick. Man or a mouse?

by Dave on February 14, 2008 at 12:31 pm. Reply #

Proxy referendums are bad plans – there’s a strong weight of anecdotal evidence that the No vote in France was because it was treated as a proxy referendum on whether or not Turkey should join. End result is an ever more pissed off Turkey, a confused polity, and an uncertain position of the effective clauses of the treaty, some but not all of which were recycled despite a lack of evidence which, if any, were opposed.

So, no, we should call for a real referendum, but should avoid a mesy, complicated proxy one which could not have a clear result respected by all, whichever way it went.

by Greg Lowis on February 14, 2008 at 12:48 pm. Reply #

Without getting into a discussion about how individual MPs will vote can I just encourage people not to believe every word they read in the media, especially when some of them are contradictory.

by George C on February 14, 2008 at 4:44 pm. Reply #

8. Greg, it was a little more complicated than that. Turkey was an important element, though mostly for those who were never going to vote for it anyway.
However, there was a feeling that something that was being recommended by every enarque on the planet as being wonderful for France had to have ‘something of the night’ about it to coin a phrase.

by Martin Land on February 14, 2008 at 5:20 pm. Reply #

Of course there should be a referendum on the Lisbon EU Constitutional Reform Treaty – & I support those Lib-Dem Mps who hold this view.

Referendums offer real democracy. Parliamentary democracy involves trust, & at present many UK voters have lost trust in their government because of its long history of bare-faced lies – especially over EU matters. The only way to heal this wound & reduce the level of dis-affection of ordinary people towards the current UK government, the UK’s political elite in general, & the EU is to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, & referendums in future on every significant EU measure – including directives that affect ordinary people’s lives. As far “In or Out” referendums are concerned, I propose that these be held in the UK at a minimum of one in every 10 years, & at a maximum of one in every 3 Parliaments – whichever is the longer of the two.

Referendums offer democracy for all people. Parliamentary votes offer democracy for their representatives, but not the people themselves. So let’s have a referendum now on the Lisbon EU Constitutional Reform Treaty!

by Liberty Valence on February 14, 2008 at 5:41 pm. Reply #

Most of the comments above, opposing a referendum, have a good deal of validity to them. After all referenda are not a particularly liberal constitutional method (J.S.Mill’s volume was on Representative government not populist government). However those arguments were equally valid before we took the decision that a referendum was appropriate in this case. I don’t think we have come up with a credible justification for our MPs U turning on this issue so I sympathise with messrs. Harvey, Heath etc. Too many people in Europe have been inconveniently candid about how the treaty is substantially equivalent to the constitution that we can’t get away with that line.
Our present position doesn’t answer the criticism of those who are in favour of EU membership but not the suggested arrangements. We can’t insist on an in/out referendum every time someone wants a change.
The party’s previous position was seen as both pro democratic and pro european (“trust in the people qualified by prudence”) the present position just looks like the political class running scared (“distrust of the people qualified by fear”).

by John Allen on February 14, 2008 at 6:12 pm. Reply #

We need to expose the tories for what they are, thats why I like our current position.

by Dominic Hannigan on February 14, 2008 at 9:40 pm. Reply #

Dave’s attack on me at (7) above is his speculation dressed up as fact. Why believe what is said in Tory papers? My “rebellion” on this is a fiction. As for “disloyalty since the Kennedy days”: like many I concluded at the end that enough was enough, and true loyalty was to the party’s good. So I didn’t “go down with the Kennedy ship” as I would have for Paddy, Ming or Nick – but which MPs apart from Lembit did? But I was not “disloyal” throughout his time, whatever his paranoid lieutenants suspected. I know who often briefed against him and it made subsequent events pretty ironic. Most MPs have seen their words reported as “senior MP remarks” occasionally, but I’m not among the “usual suspects” whatever Dave thinks!

by Nick Harvey on February 15, 2008 at 12:04 am. Reply #

What #11 and #12 said.

by sanbikinoraion on February 15, 2008 at 12:55 pm. Reply #

Martin @10, absolutely, it is far more complex, I boiled down one part of it… this is part of the problems with referenda generally. If they’re on clear cut issues which are not necessarily suitable for Parliamentary procedure, then it makes sense to have them… so, in the case of an EU in or out referendum, it’s saying “This is the rule book. Do we agree to play by it?” Wheras this treaty, it would be “Any particular rule you’ve got a problem with?”

On in or out, you weigh up the whole issue and come to a balanced conclusion (I don’t think even the most ardent Europhobes are delusional enough to think the EU is solely bad, so even they would have a balance to their ‘no’) depending on the various weights you apply to the different bits that are good and bad. But on Lisbon or any other individual treaty, you have to like the whole thing to vote ‘yes’, and you only need one thing you dislike to vote ‘no’. So UKIP’s ‘no’ would be ‘Germans are evil’, a Tory ‘no’ would be ‘undistorted competition is a protocol not a binding part’, and my ‘no’ would be ‘Where did my flag and anthem go, you wusses?’. Since there wouldn’t be a dotted line to write in our explanation of the various ‘no’s, nobody would know what changes needed to be made to make it acceptable. It probably wouldn’t be possible.

As they say, a camel is a horse designed by committee. You make that committee the size of the British electorate, and the reform treaty will end up in shatters, at best. A referendum on ‘do we accept this rule book’ is a very different beast from ‘Do we like all of these changes to all these rules?’. The former is a major issue, and suitable for referenda. The latter is procedural, and is not.

by Greg Lowis on February 15, 2008 at 2:41 pm. Reply #

But on Lisbon or any other individual treaty, you have to like the whole thing to vote ‘yes’, and you only need one thing you dislike to vote ‘no’.

Why? Why can’t one weigh that rulebook up and say “yes, I like these bits, no I don’t like those bits” and come to a balanced decision?

by sanbikinoraion on February 15, 2008 at 3:13 pm. Reply #

It can happen. But there’s no need to. This isn’t accepting the rulebook, it’s accepting a number of changes to the individual rules. In situations which are a case of amendments, alterations, picky changes to this and that, especially when the process has already been redone once (showing the possibility for that to happen), everyone can decide to hold out and whinge until they get the changes which are entirely to their satisfaction. And it’s probably not possible to come to a situation where everyone will feel that way. Making an endless loop. What we need is a final result and a decision on that, not a 450m member committee making faces at each little bit in turn.

by Greg Lowis on February 15, 2008 at 4:34 pm. Reply #

Greg, all your arguments against a referendum would have applied in 2005 and yet in that election the Party supported a referendum. What is the point of a line-by-line examination in Parliament if the legislation cannot be amended, but needs to be accepted or rejected as a whole. Surely, this is a classic case for a referendum: each elector needs to balance the good and bad and decide ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Let’s have a referendum and then let’s win it.

by Rachel Neill on February 17, 2008 at 5:23 pm. Reply #

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