John Smith has consistently opposed a referendum. Underlining the leader's position during a debate on Europe, Gerald Kaufman, Labour's former foreign affairs spokesman, warned that a plebiscite on the treaty would help the Conservatives out of their own disarray.
But Mr Benn, MP for Chesterfield, asked why MPs were so qualified to decide the issue. 'Maastricht is the biggest constitutional change this century. It transfers powers won very painfully by the Chartists and the suffragettes from the electors to commissioners and central bankers. We pride ourselves on one member, one vote to elect the leader but not one member, one vote to decide the future of this country.'
Defending the rights of the people would win the party substantial popular respect, Mr Benn said. But though his plea won prolonged applause, an emergency resolution calling for support for a national referendum was heavily defeated on a show-of-hands vote.
Opening the debate, Glyn Ford, leader of the Labour group of British Members of the European Parliament, said the blame for the recent crisis should not be pinned on the Germans, the Bundesbank or the speculators.
'Rather, it was a direct consequence of the flawed and failed economic policies of the last 13 years, compounded by short-term economic policies used to buy a fourth term of government.'
Mr Ford argued that a referendum could not change a weak currency delivered by a weak economy, the offspring of a weak and uncaring government. It would split the Labour Party, the question would be set by a Conservative prime minister, and the Tory tabloids would use it to boost 'the racists, the nationalists and xenophobes'.
Speaking for the national executive committee, Mr Kaufman said that sterling's withdrawal from the European exchange rate mechanism had totally destroyed Tory policy. 'It is as if John Major had tried to demonstrate that trick in which a table-cloth is whipped off a table leaving the crockery intact.
'So, with a deft gesture, John Major smartly whipped away the table-cloth - and with it came the crockery, smashed into fragments.'
Mr Kaufman said that Labour should not help the Tories out of their disarray with a diversionary referendum. 'Maastricht is the Tory party's problem and we should not turn it into the Labour Party's problem.
'At present, the Tories are bitterly divided, from the Cabinet downward, on Maastricht,' he said. 'A referendum campaign would unite them, apart from the Thatcherite faction - and to be opposed publicly by Lady Thatcher would do wonders for John Major's popularity.'
The conference also rejected a composite motion from the Bolsover constituency party calling on Labour MPs to oppose ratification of the Maastricht treaty, and its renegotiation to include accountable EC commissioners and minimum social provisions and employment conditions.
'As an absolute minimum Labour must oppose ratification until the treaty is renegotiated to remove the economic implications of mass unemployment and the weakening of trade unions,' Malcolm Crane, of Bolsover, said.
In a distinct echo of Dennis Skinner, his MP, Mr Crane criticised the party leadership for supporting British entry to the ERM two years ago. 'There were people believing we would have money coming out of us ears,' he said. 'As a result a lot of people in the Labour Party decided to jump on the Thatcher bandwagon to prove to the media that Labour was more European than the Tories.'
Paul Gallett, of South-East Staffordshire CLP, seconding the Bolsover motion, said the referendums in Denmark, Ireland and France had shown how out of touch their politicians were. 'I believe the same is true in this country.'
Only a referendum would signal the full debate necessary, Mr Gallett said. Only then would people appreciate the folly of handing economic control to a European central bank, run by bankers for bankers.
Alison Miller, endorsed candidate for Billericay, said the question Essex woman wanted answered about the ERM was: 'What's in it for me? My answer is 'yes' for Europe, as it must be 'no' for Maastricht.'
Alan Tuffin, general secretary of the Union of Communication Workers, said that even without the social chapter the Maastricht treaty was better than none at all.
'If a national referendum produced a 'yes' and if that referendum was organised by this government, could not the Prime Minister claim that the public and this country had voted for Maastricht with the exclusion of the social chapter - and how much damage this would cause the working men and women of this country.'Reuse content