The Tories are putting off Labour MPs from backing their Private Member’s Bill on an EU referendum with an overly partisan campaign, Coffee House has learned. John Cryer, who chairs Labour for a Referendum, tells me that he won’t be voting for the Bill because the Conservatives have turned it into a party political campaign to shore up their own position, rather than one that genuinely promotes a referendum. He says:
‘I’m not voting for it, I’m abstaining. I think the way the Tories have approached it is very party political. I can understand it in a way because they want to be in a position where they are offering people a choice, they want to try to push other parties on that policy.’
He also says that James Wharton, whose Private Member’s Bill it is, did not approach him about the legislation at all, which is odd given Cryer’s position on the group campaigning for Labour to promise a referendum. Cryer says:
‘He might have shown that they were a bit more genuine if they had approached some of us about this.’
I understand from discussions with those who have long wanted a referendum that they are worried the partisan nature and political focus will distract from the broader cause. One campaigner says: ‘It’s supposed to be country before party on this issue, not the other way round.’
Wharton says he has had talks with Labour MPs about the Bill, and that he hopes many of them will support it. But he also says it was a decision on his part not to approach them for more formal support: the co-sponsors are all Conservative, save the DUP’s Nigel Dodds.
Clearly the LetBritainDecide campaign is an excellent opportunity for the party to remind voters that only the Tories currently offer them a say on Britain’s membership of the EU. It has united the party for a while and, as Sebastian explains, is useful for future party campaigns. But this is all about politics rather than the principle of a referendum, and it is this that annoys Cryer and campaigners. If other like-minded Labour MPs join him in abstaining, then only a handful from his party could end up voting for it. Perhaps that does not matter if the Tories are happy to see the bill die, as they can then blame Labour for failing to back giving people a choice on the EU. But if they are really keen for it to pass, then they will need all the Labour votes they can get, rather than putting MPs off.