Leading Article: Labour's principled abstention

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The Independent Online
SIREN voices whisper in John Smith's ear that the Labour Party should reach a tactical understanding with potential Conservative rebels and come out against the Maastricht treaty when the Bill returns to the Commons for its Third Reading - or, at the very least, demand a referendum. Yet these rebels are, by and large, on the far right of their party. They are not the sort of people with whom either Labour's left or Labour's leadership could happily do business.

Neil Kinnock said at the weekend that he would not be prepared to vote against Maastricht, in spite of the fact that the British version of the treaty excluded the social chapter, from which the Prime Minister opted out. Within days of David Frost's interview with Mr Kinnock, Conservative ministers were encouraging the belief that, if pushed into a corner, up to 60 Labour MPs would vote with the Government on the issue. Yesterday, in the letters column of this paper, Giles Radice, one of Labour's respected pro-European elder statesmen, denied the suggestion that he was part of any such group or, indeed, that any group existed. Mr Radice described Labour's current policy of abstention as 'the sensible position'. So, from Labour's point of view, it is.

Abstention is not merely sensible in that it would be more likely to hold the party together than any available alternative, it is an honourable policy that need not inhibit the party from fighting hard for what it believes. Labour is unhappy over the decison to opt out of the social chapter. Its judgement may be wrong but it has been consistent. It has every justification for giving the administration a hard time during the committee stage.

The Labour government called a referendum on this country's continued membership of the European Community in 1975. But Labour is now in opposition and cannot effectively call for anything. Referendums are a device used by governments in a hole. In any case, it is hard to see how Mr Smith's party would campaign. The most likely outcome would be grave damage to the party.

Moreover, any act that could be interpreted by European social democratic parties or by the British electorate as opportunistic would cost Labour dear. Mr Kinnock's modernisation policies, which Mr Smith intends to build upon, were bound up with the Europeanisation of the party. If Labour were now to turn from principled abstention, against what it regards as a deficient form of Maastricht, to outright condemnation of the whole exercise, this would be regarded by its European sister parties as an act of treachery.

The effect of such short-termism would be to divorce Labour once again from continental social democracy and to drive it back into lonely isolation. This would make Labour less electable and would give ammunition to Labour's enemies who argue that the party has not really changed its spots. And a call for a vote against Maastricht would be unsustainable. It would cause a crisis of conscience and call into being a group of 60 or more MPs who simply would not be prepared to go into the 'no' lobby. Far better to carry on for the present in the knowledge that any anti-European rebellion against the policy of principled abstention would be confined to a small, hard core of unrepresentative individuals who are part of Labour's past rather than of its future.