UNITE dramatically ramped up pressure on Labour yesterday with a call for an in-out vote on the EU following the 2015 election.
Delegates at the huge Labour funder’s Liverpool conference fiercely debated an executive position urging that British people be asked their view, becoming the first big Labour-affiliated union to do so.
The motion condemned the bloc for imposing “great suffering on the people of Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere,” attacking labour rights and forcing through privatisation policies.
But the union stopped short of calling for withdrawal — instead demanding that Labour back a referendum to get a pro-EU message “out there” and close down the space occupied by the Tories and Ukip.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey described the union’s executive as “solidly in favour of the EU” despite its misgivings about its austerity policies.
However, he feared Tories and fellow rightwingers would capitalise on Labour’s “undemocratic” stance if it failed to back an in-out vote.
“It’s important for us to be on the side of democracy — the side of listening to people.”
East Midlands delegate Steve Cooper warned that a vote would overwhelmingly demand withdrawal.
“If the aim of this union is to remain in Europe it’s ludicrous to call for a referendum,” he said.
“It is totally irresponsible to even suggest a referendum.”
And he accused the executive of harbouring a secret agenda for withdrawal — a suggestion roundly rejected by Mr McCluskey.
“This is not about us calling for a British exit,” the Unite leader said. “It’s about helping Labour to win the next election.”
His position was backed by Scotland’s Eddie Cassidy, who declared: “We shouldn’t be frightened of democracy. Anyone who opposes this motion is frightened of it.”
Thomas Butler (North West) also backed a referendum but branded the EU “a waste of time and just a neoliberal capitalist club.
“I want a debate. I’m not a xenophobe, I’m an internationalist. I have more in common with a worker in Cuba than a boss in Spain.”
And London Eastern speaker Bronwen Handyside opposed from an anti-EU position as she told of her “bitter experience” of the “punitive, destructive and privatising agenda emanating from the EU.”
Motions calling for total withdrawal and backing the EU both fell when the vote was carried.