It's somebody else's problem: Gerald Kaufman warns Labour's executive not to get the party into a tangle over the future of the Maastricht treaty

Click to follow
As Labour's national executive meets today to discuss Europe, its members should bear in mind that the party - despite its traumatic defeat - gained 42 seats last April because 1,500,000 additional voters were reassured that it had resumed its relationship with the real world after several years' voluntary exile in make-believe-land.

In the real world, the facts about the European Community remain exactly as they were before last week's sterling crisis and this week's French referendum.

Fact one: the pound is a vulnerable currency whose fate and value depend on external factors, most especially the policies of the Germany Bundesbank. It is too vulnerable to go it alone for very long, which is why Nigel Lawson insisted that it shadow the mark and why John Major two years ago forced Margaret Thatcher to agree that the UK should enter the exchange rate mechanism.

The Government's folly then was not the decision to join the ERM but entering at a time when the external exchange rate and the internal interest rate were both unsuitable. The present period of withdrawal from the ERM should be used to achieve a viable equilibrium between the exchange rate and the interest rate at which it would be right to rejoin.

It is self-delusory to believe that, two years further into Britain's slump and after last week's crisis of confidence, the pound is now somehow free to float placidly, the external symbol of an impermeable UK economy in which the Government can decide on whatever monetary and economic policies it likes. Any member of the Labour executive who argues thus is seeking to drag the party back into the fantasy world whose delusions led in 1983 to 209 Labour MPs and eight million votes.

Fact two: whatever the fate of the Maastricht treaty, Britain's future is indissolubly bound up with that of the European Community, in which even strong economies such as those of France and Germany know they cannot prosper in isolation. The Tories have undoubtedly done profoundly serious damage to this country's economy by destroying so much of our manufacturing base. That narrow industrial base can only expand within a market much larger than Britain's own.

Fact three: there is no point in Labour getting itself into a tangle about the future of the treaty, because it has no future until the Danish government can persuade an increasingly large anti-Maastricht majority to vote yes in a second referendum. The UK government should have used its EC presidency to try to sort out the Danish problem. Half of that time has elapsed; not only has no progress been made, but no effort to make progress has been made.

It will be for the Danish presidency, which begins on 1 January, to attempt to sort out the mess, and even if it succeeds there is no chance of a second Danish referendum until well into the second quarter of 1993.

Even Mr Major has now admitted that the Maastricht ratification Bill cannot resume progress in the House of Commons until the Danish problem is settled - a point I made on 3 June, the day after the Danish no vote, when Douglas Hurd was still insisting that the committee stage of the Bill proceed that very day. Only a party with a talent for self-destruction (ie, the British Labour Party) would set about splitting itself in autumn 1992 over a matter that will certainly not arise for more than six months and may never arise at all.

Fact four: there is no chance of the Government being defeated on a key vote on the Maastricht Bill if that legislation does proceed. The Conservatives have a Commons majority of 65 over Labour. They would be supported by the 20 Liberal Democrats. Taking into account the random voting habits of the minor parties, and even assuming a substantial Tory rebellion, the Government could look forward to a majority of around 80.

In a vote on a referendum, the Liberal Democrats would oppose Mr Major. However, even if the Labour leadership were to change its mind and support a referendum, there would be enough Labour rebels (not obedient lobby-fodder such as myself, I might add) to ensure the Government's victory.

Fact five: in any case, there is nothing for the Labour Party to gain, and a great deal for it to lose, from arguing over - let alone pressing for - a referendum on Maastricht or any other aspect of EC policy. The question to be voted on would not be decided by the Labour Party executive or Shadow Cabinet but by the Tory Cabinet. We can be sure it would be framed in such a way as to maximise the prospects of the Government getting the answer it wanted.

A referendum campaign would unite the Conservative Party - all except for the Thatcherite fringe, whose overt opposition to Cabinet policy would help Mr Major, just as he has been helped every time Lady Thatcher has opposed him publicly. Whenever his predecessor as prime minister opens her mouth, millions of voters offer prayers of thanksgiving that she is no longer at No 10.

On the other hand, such a campaign would split the Labour Party, as did the 1975 referendum on whether the UK should stay in the EC, even though it was a Labour government that drafted the question. (And that referendum produced a result contrary to the wishes of those who advocated it.) A referendum would provide several months' distraction from real politics: distraction from Labour's essential efforts to pin down the Government's failures on the economy and the social services. For all these reasons, Mr Major may well be tempted into calling a referendum.

Labour has in recent years worked out a sensible approach to the EC. The party should spend the period before the Maastricht Bill returns to the Commons - if it ever does - arguing for an end to Britain's opt-out from the social chapter and for constructive policies for the economic convergence that is more necessary than ever after the shambles Mr Major and Norman Lamont created last week.

Maastricht is the Tory government's problem. Only fools would turn it into a problem for the Labour Party as well.

The author was shadow Foreign Secretary, 1987-92.

Comments