The Referendum Party was a Eurosceptic, single-issue political party that was active in the United Kingdom from 1994 until 1997. The party's sole policy was for a referendum to be held on the UK's relationship with the European Union (EU), specifically as to whether the British population wanted to be part of a federal European state or whether they wanted the EU to revert to being a free-trade bloc without wider political functions.
The party was founded by the multi-millionaire James Goldsmith, who used his financial resources and contacts to promote it. In the build-up to the 1997 general election, the Referendum Party spent more on press advertising than either the Conservative Party or the Labour Party. In the election, it gained 3% of the national vote; although failing to attain any Members of Parliament in the House of Commons, it was recognised as the most successful minor party in recent years. After Goldsmith's death in 1997, the party disbanded. During the period of its existence, the Referendum Party was considerably more successful than another Eurosceptic group, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), although following Referendum's collapse, many of its candidates joined UKIP.
The formation of the Referendum Party was announced by James Goldsmith on 27 November 1994. Goldsmith had once been a strong supporter of the EU but had grown disenchanted with it during the early 1990s, becoming particularly concerned that it was forming into a superstate governed by the centralised institutions in Brussels. He opposed the EU's Maastrict Treaty, believing that it resulted in increased German hegemony in Europe. Being an economic protectionist, he was also critical when the EU signed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, believing that global free trade would damage both the EU's economy and his own business interests.
Goldsmith had pre-existing political experience, having been elected as a Member of the European Parliament in France as part of an anti-Maastrict coalition in 1994. Although his father had been a Member of Parliament representing Britain's Conservative Party, and he had personally had a close relationship to the party when it was led by Margaret Thatcher, Goldsmith wanted to launch his campaign independently of the Conservatives, hoping that it could draw on cross-party concerns about the direction of the EU. At the time of the party's formation, Goldsmith had an estimated personal wealth of £800 million and promised to put £20 million into the party. He pledged to spend at least £10 million on campaigning for the next general election, to ensure that his party was funded to the same extent as the country's larger political parties. Goldsmith's intervention in British politics has been compared to that of the multi-millionaires Ross Perot in the United States and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy.
The UK's ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, followed by its passing of the European Communities (Finance) Act in 1994–95, had generated much controversy and infighting within the governing Conservative Party. This had caused much damage to the government of Prime Minister John Major, which was experiencing high rates of unpopularity. Various British newspapers, among them The Sun, The Daily Telegraph and The Times, had adopted a consistently Eurosceptic position. Opinion polls suggested growing opposition to aspects of the EU in the UK. More widely, the acceleration of the EU's integration process had resulted in the growth of Eurosceptic parties across many member states.
Ideology and early growth
According to the political scientists Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, the Referendum Party was "a classic single-issue party". This was something acknowledged by Goldsmith, who, when launching the party's "Statement of Aims" in October 1995, stated, "This is a single-issue biodegradable party which will be dissolved once we have achieved our aim." The referendum question which the party proposed was announced on 28 November 1996: "Do you want the United Kingdom to be part of a federal Europe or do you want the United Kingdom to return to an association of sovereign nations that are part of a common trading market?" In reference to this single issue, some journalists referred to it as the "Referendum Only Party". Goldsmith did not position the party as explicitly opposed to the EU, instead stating that it was "wholly agnostic" and just wanted to secure a referendum on the issue. However, the wording of the party's main question led one group of political scientists to note that it "clearly revealed Goldsmith's Eurosceptic colours" and that the wider pronouncements of the party became increasingly Eurospectic as time went on.
In its first year, the Referendum Party remained largely an idea with little established organisation behind that. Goldsmith's finances had allowed its appearance to be accompanied with mass publicity but it lacked the standard machinery of a political party such as a mass membership or politically experienced personnel. To counter this problem, Goldsmith sought to create a sophisticated administrative centre and to secure the expertise to carry out a political campaign. By October 1995, it had established a hierarchical structure consisting of three tiers: the centre, region and constituency. Operating the centre was Goldsmith and a cabinet whose membership included Lord McAlpine (who was a former treasurer of the Conservative Party) and two former members of the Conservative Central Office staff. The centre had around 50 staff, who relayed Goldsmith's instructions through to the ten regional co-ordinators, who in turn relayed them to the prospective candidates in the constituencies. This top-down and undemocratic structure concentrated decision making with Goldsmith and the centre and provided little autonomy for the regions and constituencies, although this was deemed necessary to ensure efficiency in its campaign. The conference had been staged largely to impress the media, at a cost of £750,000, although journalists deemed unsympathetic to the party were reportedly banned from attending.
Rather than having members who paid a joining fee, the Referendum Party had "supporters" who could voluntarily donate money if they wished. By February 1997, the party claimed that it had 160,000 registered supporters although the point was raised that some of these individuals had only requested information about it and had not actively registered as "supporters". The party issued a newspaper, News from the Referendum Party, to attract wider attention to its aims and broaden its support. One issue, published in February 1996, was delivered to 24 million households at an estimated cost of £2 million. It also sought to attract the support of prominent figures from business, the arts and academia, inviting them to its major events. In October 1996, it held a national conference in Brighton; unsympathetic media outlets were reportedly banned and forty speakers addressed an audience of 5,000. Among those who had been secured as speakers were the actor Edward Fox, the ecologist David Bellamy, the politician Lord Tonypandy and the zookeeper John Aspinall. By the time of the conference, the party was increasingly reflecting its Eurosceptic intentions, particularly with the use of slogans like "No Surrender to Brussels".
Goldsmith was quickly able to register 230,000 supporters, hire 60 members of staff, and rent both a London headquarters and ten regional offices throughout the United Kingdom. Its early supporters fell largely into three types: committed Eurospectics, disaffected Conservatives and those who strongly believed in the importance of a referendum. At the time it was largely seen as a threat to the governing Conservative Party, which was experiencing high levels of mid-term unpopularity. In September 1995, the party began recruiting candidates to contest the next general election. By October 1996, the party claimed 50,000 members and held its first national conference in Brighton. Goldsmith was also able to obtain a number of celebrity endorsements for his party. Despite Goldsmith's longstanding criticism of the mainstream media (he had stated that "reporting in England is a load of filth") the party used its finances to promote its message in the media. It hired Ian Beaumont, who had formerly been the press officer to Thatcher's government, to work for it. The party paid for many full-page and some double-page adverts in the UK's national newspapers, as well as two cinema adverts. This generated criticism from those who accused it of "cheque-book politics" in the manner of Perot in the US. This financial backing and infrastructure contrasted with that of another single-issue Eurosceptic Party, the UK Independence Party, which was operating with little finances and a skeleton organisation at the time.
The Referendum Party was represented by a single MP in the House of Commons for two weeks before the dissolution in March 1997. George Gardiner, the Conservative MP for Reigate, changed parties in March 1997 following deselection by his local party.
1997 general election
By the time of the 1997 general election, polls suggested that Eurosceptic sentiment was running high in the United Kingdom, and the question of the country's ongoing membership of the EU was a topic of regular discussion in the media. Much of this press coverage was negative, with mainstream newspapers like the Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Times promoting Eurosceptic sentiment. Such debates were influenced by the UK's recent signing of the Maastricht Treaty and the looming possibility that the country would adopt the Euro currency. Goldsmith spent three times as much as the Conservative Party and five times as much as the Labour Party on advertising in the British press. Its media profile greatly eclipsed that of UKIP. Goldsmith also used his financial resources to deliver a videotape to five million UK households in March 1997. The 12-minute film, presented by the former That's Life! presenter Gavin Campbell, warned of a coming "federal European super-state". The BBC also permitted the party one five-minute party political broadcast because it was fielding over 50 candidates. The party insisted that it should have more, taking the issue to the High Court, which sided with the BBC.
The Referendum Party decided not to contest any of the by-elections that took place in 1996 and 1997. For the 1997 general election, the Referendum Party hurried its selection of candidates. Candidates had only one interview before becoming the official party candidate, with no background checks or screening. The funding for each candidate's official campaign was funded entirely by the party centre. Candidates were brought to a training day at a Manchester hotel in February 1997, where they were presented with several hours of speeches and given a handbook. Many felt that the event had been a public relations exercise rather than a concerted effort to train candidates. In 1996, both the Conservative and Labour Parties committed to the idea that they would require a referendum on any proposed economic and monetary union with the EU; the Liberal Democrats had already committed to this idea. It is difficult to quantify what role the Referendum Party had on the adoption of these positions. Goldsmith condemned the Conservatives' pledge as an "empty gesture". Concerned that they would lose votes to the Referendum Party, many in the Conservative Party were pressing Major to enter talks with Goldsmith, although the Prime Minister refused to enter into any formal dialogue. The electoral threat posed by Goldsmith's party was taken seriously among the Conservatives. A number of senior Conservatives, among them Major, Ken Clarke, Douglas Hurd, Brian Mawhinney and Michael Heseltine, launched vitriolic and often personal criticisms of Goldsmith and his party. Hurd declared that "the government's policy must not be put at the mercy of millionaires who play with British politics as a hobby or as a boost to newspaper sales".
In the general election, the Referendum Party stood in 547 constituencies, making it the largest minor party to have ever contested a British general election. None were in Northern Ireland, where Goldsmith had established an agreement with Ulster Unionist politicians that he would not stand candidates against them; in turn the one Unionist MEP joined his Europe of Nations grouping in the European Parliament, allowing it to retain its Parliamentary funding. It also avoided putting forth candidates in constituencies where the leading candidate (65 of them Conservatives, 26 Labour and 2 Liberal Democrats) was considered sympathetic to the Referendum Party's call for a referendum. Goldsmith appeared to acknowledge that it was unlikely to win any of the contested seats, stating that the party's success would be "judged solely by its total number of votes". It officially launched its electoral campaign on 9 April 1997 at Newlyn in Cornwall, where Goldsmith sought to whip up Eurosceptic sentiment among fishermen over the issue of EU fishing quotas.
The Referendum Party polled 811,827 votes. This represented 2.6% of the overall vote, and it averaged 3.1% in the seats which it contested. 42 of their candidates gained a sufficient number of votes that thy had their deposits returned. It did not win a seat in the House of Commons. One of the most memorable images was Goldsmith taunting the government minister, David Mellor, who had lost his Putney seat where Goldsmith stood as candidate. They nevertheless had exhibited the strongest performance of a minor party in recent UK political history. Support had been strongest in the south and east of England, in particular in areas with high elderly populations and high rates of agricultural employment. Support for the party was considerably weaker in London, Northern England, and Scotland.
The general election resulted in a victory for Tony Blair's Labour Party, which adopted a pro-EU stance. Their victory was considered a landslide, thus making the Referendum Party's role in the election fairly irrelevant.
According to analysis by John Curtice and Michael Steed, "only a handful of the Conservatives' losses of seats can be blamed on the intervention of the Referendum Party". Their best estimate was that only four seats would have been Conservative without the Referendum Party standing. Supporters of the party contended the effect was greater: one estimate claims between 25 and 30 seats.
The Referendum Party had proved more electorally successful than its Eurosceptic rival, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which averaged 1.2% of the vote in the 194 constituencies that it contested. Curtice and Steed's statistical analysis suggested that when a candidate from the Referendum Party or the UK Independence Party stood, the Conservative vote suffered, but where the candidate did well, it was by attracting people who would have voted for Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Those who voted for the party held a diversity of ideological positions, with the only shared factor being their Euroscepticism.
Three months after the election, Goldsmith died, with the party collapsing shortly after. By 1998, the possibility of a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU was considered as distant as it had been in 1995.
Under the direction of UKIP's leader Michael Holmes, the party's chairman Nigel Farage began recruiting former Referendum Party members to their own group; according to Farage, around 160 of the Referendum Party's candidates joined UKIP. Among those to join UKIP was Jeffrey Titford, who became one of the party's first Members of the European Parliament. In the 2001 general election, much of the support that had previously gone to the Referendum Party went not to UKIP but to the Conservatives, whose leader William Hague had employed Eurosceptic rhetoric throughout his campaign.
A successor, the Referendum Movement, was created by leaders of the party, including Lady Annabel Goldsmith, who was made the honorary president. This merged in January 1999 with the Euro Information Campaign, another pro-sterling, anti-Euro group funded by the millionaire Paul Sykes, who now supports the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The merged group, the Democracy Movement, is not a party, but a pressure group. The first president was Lady Annabel. Her son, and Goldsmith's stepson, Robin Birley, was chairman until 2004. Birley had also stood for election as a member of his stepfather's Referendum Party.
Reception and legacy
Although the party had faced criticism and mockery, it gained much media exposure. Carter et al described it as a "single-issue movement" that had attributes of both a political party and a pressure group. While it took part in elections, it focused on a single issue and stated that if it got an MP elected then their sole aim would be to secure a referendum. It also claimed that on achieving its main aim, the party would disband, unlike most political parties.
In 2015, the Conservative politician Zac Goldsmith, the son of James Goldsmith, claimed that the Referendum Party had been ultimately responsible for preventing the UK from adopting the Euro currency by pressuring both the Conservatives and Labour to acknowledge that the Euro should not be introduced without a referendum on the matter.
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- Democracy Movement, a successor to the Referendum Party