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1975: Labour votes to leave the EEC

A one-day conference held by the Labour Party to debate Britain's membership of Europe has voted by almost 2-1 to leave the European Economic Community.

The result underlines the deep splits within the party over the issue, which goes to a national referendum on 5 June.

There were just over 3.7m votes for rejecting EEC membership. Most of the votes came from the two biggest unions, the Transport Workers and the Engineering Workers.

The pro-membership campaign fell just short of their target of two million votes, but still carried their highest-ever vote. Seven of the 46 unions present supported the campaign.


"It is now best for the future of Britain... that we remain in the Community"

Prime Minister Harold Wilson

Both sides said they were delighted.

"We have had a conference and the decision is clear," said the Industry Secretary, Tony Benn, a leading figure in the anti-Common Market group. "It is very clear that there now must be a move for the Labour Party to campaign."

Shirley Williams, who spoke for the pro-EEC lobby, said, "It's much better than we had feared, but not quite as good as we had hoped."

The debate was staged as a set-piece event ahead of the referendum campaign. Opening the conference, the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, said his position was not one of principle, but one of pragmatism.

"My judgement is that it is now best for the future of Britain, best for the Commonwealth, best for the developing world, best for the wider world, that we remain in the Community," he said.

The Employment Secretary, Michael Foot, disagreed. He blamed this week's high unemployment figures on what he said was the damage to Britain's domestic market from European imports.

"I read these figures with horror and with shame," he said. "I want to see every instrument available at our command for dealing with unemployment here and now."

The Labour Party's splits over Europe have led to a series of embarrassments for the government recently. Labour MPs, including ministers, have forced defeats on the way votes are counted in the referendum, and on the renegotiation of Britain's membership of the EEC.

In Context
The Labour party was hopelessly split for the 1975 referendum on the Common Market, and Harold Wilson allowed cabinet members to campaign according to their consciences. Labour left-wingers played a leading role in the "No" campaign.

In the end, the pro-EEC lobby carried the day, and the referendum returned a vote for continued membership.

The anti-Europeans, however, came to dominate the party. After losing the 1983 election, Labour's new leader, Neil Kinnock, set about reforming and unifying the party's attitudes.

By 1994, under the leadership of Tony Blair - an anti-EEC campaigner in the 1970s - the party was broadly united under a policy of membership of the European Union, and support in principle for European monetary union.

The Euro was launched in 2002 but Britain remained outside the eurozone. Labour insisted it remained committed to the idea of a single currency but would join only when the right economic conditions prevailed.


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