Miliband promises to keep Cameron's EU referendum lock

Labour leader says he would not reverse measure previously denounced by his party as a "dog's breakfast" and a "political gesture".

Appearing on the Today programme this morning, Ed Miliband was asked the question that will be put to him repeatedly between now and the general election: will you offer the British people a referendum on the EU? He responded by saying that an in/out referendum now would be damaging to the UK's interests but went on to note that the coalition's European Union Bill meant a public vote would be triggered whenever there was a transfer of powers to Brussels. Significantly, for the first time, he said that Labour did not propose "repealing" the legislation. When the bill was debated by parliament in 2011, Labour denounced it as "unnecessary", a "dog's breakfast" and a "political gesture" to appease Tory backbenchers (it subsequently abstained from voting). But Miliband has now accepted that his party is in no position to oppose the measure, designed to safeguard UK sovereignty.

After David Cameron yesterday accused Labour of planning to take Britain into the single currency, Miliband also gave his clearest statement yet on euro membership. "Britain's not going to be joining the euro, it won't be joining the euro if I'm Prime Minister," he said. As Cameron is fond of pointing out, the Labour leader once previously remarked that whether or not the UK joined the euro would depend on "how long I'm Prime Minister for".

Repeatedly asked whether he favoured a "looser European Union", Miliband struggled to offer a satisfactory answer. He said that we were moving to a "more flexible" EU but argued that this was not the same thing as "a looser one". For now, Miliband rightly emphasises that the priority is to move Europe away from austerity and towards growth, but he will need a much more detailed answer before the election.

Intriguingly, then, Miliband said that he was willing to consider restricting benefits for EU immigrants. He told Jim Naughtie: "Of course that's an issue that should be looked at, the length of entitlement to benefits and how quickly can get them. All of these issues should be on the table."

The Tories will hope to use this to begin a political arms race that only one side can win.

 
Labour leader Ed Miliband said that an in/out referendum on the EU would cause dangerous uncertainty. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.