More Labour MPs demand EC referendum

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Pressure on John Smith for Labour to back a referendum on the Maastricht treaty rose sharply from both his front and back benches yesterday.

John Morris, the shadow Attorney General, demanded a plebiscite in a stinging attack on the treaty as David Blunkett, a shadow Cabinet member, also hinted at his support for a vote. From the back benches, George Howarth, the MP for Knowsley North, followed the former industry minister and Swansea West MP Alan Williams in demanding a referendum. A Gallup poll in yesterday's Daily Telegraph which showed 65 per cent support for a referendum, with 16 per cent against and 20 per cent undecided.

Mr Smith's difficulties over Europe and economic policy were compounded by Bryan Gould, Labour's national heritage spokesman, who again bitterly attacked the overvalued pound and the Maastricht treaty, saying it 'beggared belief' that Britain was being asked to sign up to something that would require 'massive cuts in public spending at a time of deep recession'.

A tense discussion looks likely when Labour's national executive meets on Monday to discuss aims and objectives. Mr Smith's problems over a referendum are made worse because demands for a pebiscite are coming not just from the traditionally anti-EC wing of his party but from those who would count themselves as pro-Europe. Mr Morris, Labour's principal law officer, is a former Cabinet minister who, after initial opposition to the EC, was once considered as successor to Roy Jenkins as EC commissioner.

Yesterday, however, he launched into an attack on overpaid commissioners, Brussels busybodies and the international scandal of an inflated bureaucracy 'looking for something to do', as he said the treaty was 'dead in the water' after the Danish vote.

Maastricht, he said, would lead to 'uniformity, centralisation and ultimately the federal state', adding 'the fact that we have time to pause, and the case for a referendum, as in Ireland, France and Denmark, is growing, does in no way mean that we are anti-European.

'An examination, line by line, of the Maastricht Bill, with a majority in the Commons dragooned by the whips, is no substitute for open argument at the polls.'

Mr Morris's speech in Llanelli came as David Blunkett, speaking in Sheffield at a race relations conference, warned that 'enthusiasm for further European integration', and centralised power in the hands of bankers and bureaucrats, may 'reinfornce genuine worries that influence and control are slipping away from ordinary people'.

It was vital to 'open up rather than close down the debate', even after the French referendum.

Meanwhile, Mr Howarth launched a campaign on Merseyside for a referendum yesterday, saying: 'I make my comments as a supporter of the European ideal and of Britain's continued membership - but not the opt-out, sold-out, sweat-shop Britain in a bankers' Europe which John Major wants'.

The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, mounted a strong defence of the Maastricht treaty yesterday, claiming that a 'yes' vote in the French referendum would be good for Britain and the rest of Europe.

Speaking in south London, he said the treaty marked a 'setback for the centralisers' and would help Britain to achieve its goals. But he said that the EC should 'develop at a rate with which its citizens feel comfortable'.