By promising a referendum on the proposed European Union constitution, Tony Blair has put himself at risk of a political defeat. Current opinion polls show 86% against the constitution.
However, a defeat for Blair in the referendum cannot be made into a victory for the left. And in any case, Blair has designed things to limit his risks.
Referendums are at best a very clumsy instrument of democracy, at worst a tool for demagogues. They offer only a crude yes-no vote, with no chance for amendment or nuance. Often more depends on who phrases the referendum question, and how, than on any real democratic debate.
In this case the yes-no vote will be on a muddily-written constitution, several hundred pages long, which hardly any voters will have read.
The constitution allows a few more powers to the elected European Parliament, but would leave haggling between EU government ministers as the major means of EU decision-making. Its main aim is to streamline that process of haggling in preparation for the expansion of the EU to 25 states.
It entrenches many neo-liberal precepts.
However, rejection of the constitution will not in any foreseeable future move us towards a more democratic Europe, or one with stronger social provision or workers’ rights.
If the constitution falls, the expansion and integration of the EU will continue. Right-wing economic policies across the EU - privatisation, cuts in social provision - will not be reversed or slowed down by a victory for the right-wing Tories’ ‘no’ to the constitution.
Feeling against the draft constitution is higher in Britain than elsewhere in Europe, not because Britain has exceptional social provision, workers’ rights, or democracy which people see as at risk of being levelled down to a poorer European average - in fact, British conditions are generally worse than the European average - but because of stronger nationalism and isolationism in Britain.
Even though the Tories support EU expansion - which must fairly soon lead to people from the new EU member states in Eastern Europe entering Britain freely - they can surf their ‘no’ agitation on the wave of chauvinist press agitation against migrants from Eastern Europe and asylum seekers.
In a referendum, the best way to express support for a democratic united Europe and for levelling up of social provision and workers’ rights will be to spoil ballot papers.
Some left-wingers may tell themselves that they are voting no for left-wing reasons, but in fact they have no power or leverage to give the ‘no’ vote a meaning different from that given to it by the dominant right wing ‘no’ forces.
Voting ‘no’ cannot bring any definite advantage. A blow to Blair, whom we hate? But equally a blow for Tory leader Michael Howard, whom we hate no less.
According to the Independent (21 April), Blair’s decision for a referendum was a deal to placate Rupert Murdoch: ‘A Downing Street sources said [that] a close associate of Mr Murdoch had made clear at a recent meeting with Mr Blair that The Sun and The Times would not support Labour at the next general election unless he promised a referendum. "A deal was done", the source said’.
Blair must also reckon that the promise of a referendum will help him in June’s Euro-elections.
He can limit his risks. He does not have to call the referendum until after the next general election. He can divide the Tories in a referendum, drawing some of their best-known leaders into a yes campaign, and a ‘no’ result will hit the Lib Dems.
Blair’s calculations, and his deal with Murdoch, have nothing to do with democracy. The only democratic way of settling the matter would be a proper European Constituent Assembly, allowing directly-elected representatives of the peoples of the EU to debate, amend, and decide the matter.