British referenda on the EU: 1975 and 2016

Posted: June 13, 2016 by Admin in British politics, Capitalist ideology, England, Scotland, Wales

by David Dickinson*

1975: Labour government in power with very small parliamentary majority, having been elected a few months earlier with support of 28.5% of eligible voters.

2016: Tory government in power with small majority, having been elected a year earlier with support of 24.5% of eligible voters.

1975: Common Market/European Community referendum, having been called by Labour PM, Harold Wilson, to address split in his party and the country.

2016: EU referendum, having been called by Tory PM, David Cameron, to address split in his party and the country. Many on the left call it nothing more than a Tory Party civil war.

1975: Half of Labour MPs, vast majority of Trade Unions, and most of the radical left urge a ‘No’ vote.

2016: Vast majority of Labour MPs and almost all large Trade Unions urge a ‘Yes’ vote.

1975: Conservatives overwhelmingly in favour of a ‘Yes’ vote.

2016: Conservatives split on referendum.

1975: New right-wing leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher, in favour of ‘Yes’ vote.

2016: New left-wing leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, in favour of ‘Yes’ vote.

1975: National Front appears poised to make electoral breakthrough. Opposed to EC membership.

2016: UKIP is 3rd most popular political party in Britain. Opposed to EU membership.

1975: Some on the radical left see referendum as a means to split the Labour Party and create a much larger radical left movement.

2016: Some on the radical left see referendum as a means of creating a much larger radical right movement.

1975: Some right-wing Conservatives see Economic Community as a means to stop rise of socialism in UK.

2016: Many on the Left see EU as a means to stop Conservatism.

1975: Strong Labour left has own economic programme – Alternative Economic Strategy – which includes exit from Common Market.

2016: Weak Labour left has no economic programme.

1975: 12 million members of trade unions. Strike action against cuts to pay and jobs a regular feature.

2016: 7 million members of trade unions. Previous 12 months have seen levels of strike action amongst the lowest on record.

1975: Junior doctors take industrial action over pay and conditions set out in new junior staff contracts. Doctors advised by BMA to keep to a 40-hour week and deal with emergencies only. An agreement was reached with Labour government shortly after.

2016: Junior doctors take industrial action over pay and conditions set out in new staff contracts. Agreement reached between Conservative government and BMA.

Postscripts etc:

1975: Harold Wilson to retire within a year and replaced – without a general election – by James Callaghan, a more right-wing Labour leader.

2016: Leftists complain that one result of a Brexit could be the replacement of the PM – without a general election – of a more right-wing Tory leader.

1975: A year later, following IMF loan, Labour government imposes monetarism on UK, including severe cuts to public services and wage restraint to curb inflation. Labour left, trade unions and radical left opposed to austerity. Ultimately ineffective.

2016: UK is 6 years into a programme of severe cuts to public services and pay freezes/less-than-inflation pay increases. Small scale anti-austerity campaign ineffective. Labour Left and trade unions complain that more right-wing government will emerge after Brexit with a programme of cuts and wage restraint.

1975 onwards: Margaret Thatcher moves Conservative Party to the right, adopting a monetarist economic programme, including cuts to public services and wage restraint. Elected PM in May, 1979, and set to transform British politics.

2016 onwards?: The Left remains moribund and pessimistic about its prospects to govern in future.

We got this off James Heartfield’s facebook page and it is not entirely clear who wrote it, but it looks like Dave Dickinson.

  1. Gary MacLennan says:

    I am not sure what to make of this post comparing 1975 with 2016. At one level it is fascinating. But surely the more interesting stuff was the debate inside the Labour Party in 1976 over the economic crisis and the subsequent decision to abandon Keynesianism and to embrace neoliberalism. That was what was to determine the next 40 years.


  2. Admin says:

    It’s kind of interesting in a number of ways – the way the Labourites and Tories have partly switched place, the shift between on parts of the left, and so on.

    In terms of Labour, I think its important to understand the Wilsonian project. Wilson’s Labour Party that came to power in 1964 aimed at the sweeping modernisation of British industry, economy and society. This was a government of Labour’s grammar school and public school boys – men from manual working class backgrounds who had benefited from the postwar educational reforms and who were now well-removed from their class origins and, indeed, highly hostile to working class *collectivist* aspirations (as opposed to individual working class social climbers, like themselves). And one woman (Barbara Castle).

    The later discussion about shifting from Keynesianism to a more ‘new right’ (or neo-liberal) approach was *the absolutely logical consequence* of the Wilson 1964-1970 government.

    For a couple of years I taught courses on the British ‘swinging sixties’ (well, basically from Austerity Britain to the Swinging Sixties) and I read a lot of good stuff in preparing that course and changed my mind about a few things: the Labourites of that era were (generally) socially liberal (eg Roy Hattersley said the permissive society was the civilised society) and economically right-wing and increasingly nastily anti-working class.

    Labour’s modernising project required redrawing industrial relations and that meant drastically reducing trade union power – by any means necessary.

    Another interesting thing about that period, if you look at the Labour and Tory election manifestos from much of the 1950s and 1960s is that they were fairly similar. Macmillan had embraced the welfare state and the Tories built up this state during their long reign from 1951-1964. The attacks on the working class were begun not by them, but by Wilson, Castle and co.

    I’ve written about this is a few places on Redline.

    See the article about the Ford Dagenham strike for equal pay in 1968, which has background on the industrial situation in Britain in the mid-60s under Labour:
    Also, the article on the Profumo Affair as a moral panic that united Tory reactionaries and Labour liberals:

    Phil F