Why Miliband's position on the EU is stronger than it appears

Tory unity will prove shortlived and the Labour leader could execute a relatively painless U-turn on a referendum.

For a day when the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition said exactly what they had been expected to say, there was rather a lot of excitement.

David Cameron yesterday promised to attempt a renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) and, having secured a better deal (as he sees it) invite the British people to back the arrangement or walk away. This position had already been advertised in advance, albeit after much behind-the-scenes haggling and Downing Street floor-pacing.

Ed Miliband, meanwhile, said he thought it was not a good idea to pledge a referendum now and that the whole thing was a reckless gamble with Britain’s future driven only by the need to quell brewing rebellion on the Tory benches. This position, also produced after much haggling in the shadow cabinet, was known in advance too.

And yet, somehow, when it actually happened it was still big news. That is partly because all the pent-up journalistic energy that had gone into the pre-speech reporting had to be released and partly because the two positions got a good theatrical airing in Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons. Besides, thinking something is very likely to happen and it actually happening are different things.

So where does the land lie now? There was a strong feeling around Westminster yesterday that Cameron had played a tough hand well and that Miliband had thrown away a bunch of good cards. The justification for that view is that the Tories seemed uncannily united, cheering the PM lustily on an issue that is famously divisive in the Conservative Party. The Labour leader, meanwhile, looked trapped in a contradictory position. The essence of his argument is that Cameron’s pledge offers dangerous uncertainty, yet Miliband seemed uncertain as to what precisely he wanted.

That is because there are enough people on the Labour side who think a referendum is inevitable and so consider it madness to rule one out. That leaves Miliband in the position of partially closing the door, which is never as dramatic as slamming it shut (or flinging it open).

The concern for the Labour referendum advocates is that Miliband is stuck now in a position of perpetually explaining why he doesn’t "trust the people", when Cameron can say he has a perfectly clear policy of democratic renewal for the EU and wants to get on with the job of making it happen. Cameron’s position is indeed clear. It is also unrealistic - the renegotiation that the Tory benches envisage will never happen to their satisfaction. By contrast, Miliband’s position is realistic and unclear. He is right to question the wisdom of starting a phoney referendum war on issues that are plainly a distraction from what the UK government and EU leaders should be doing. But to people who don’t follow these things obsessively, Miliband's argument is not a quick sell.

In the first phase of the news cycle, Cameron’s gimmicky clarity trumps Miliband’s technical realism. But will that continue to be the case? It is certainly true that Labour will find it hard to get through the next two years, let alone an election campaign, without a better answer to the “trust the people” question.

At the moment, Miliband has cover from the Liberal Democrats who share his view of the issue and use pretty much the same language. But it is not at all guaranteed that this tacit alliance will hold. The situation is even trickier for the Lib Dems than for Labour to the extent that they have bandied around the idea of an in/out referendum before. So refusing to back one when it actually comes up as a serious prospect risks reinforcing all the worst aspects of Nick Clegg’s tarnished brand – pledge-busting, slippery, gutless etc. All the mean things the focus groups have been saying about him since the whole tuition fees debacle will be rehearsed again.

There is a strong chance the Lib Dems will go into the next election with an EU referendum pledge. One senior Clegg advisor, conceding the point that it would be agony to fight a campaign on a platform ostensibly denying the nation a choice, recently told me: “the best way to take the issue and nullify it is to match the Tories’ commitment.” This advisor also expected Labour to come to the same conclusion. The best way to stop referendum questions dominating a campaign would be for everyone to have one in their manifesto. For the time being that doesn’t appear to be Clegg’s formal position, but the option is plainly being kept open.

If the Lib Dems fold on the referendum point, Labour will look very exposed. (It also matters because it will be one of those issues that gets kicked around in discussions of who could more easily form a coalition with whom in the event of another hung parliament.)

Interestingly, one of the key reasons Miliband doesn’t think it is a good idea to pledge a plebiscite is that he thinks he has a decent chance of actually becoming Prime Minister after the next election. He doesn’t fancy spending the first 18 months of his term in office on the campaign trail against Ukip and what would by then be a hysterically anti-EU opposition Tory party. It is a fair point. If David Cameron needs to fiddle around the policy margins pretending the biggest issue in the world right now is repatriating the right to scrap paid holiday and maternity leave to stop his backbenchers hating him for a couple of days, well, that’s his problem. Why should that set Labour’s agenda for government?

But that’s not an argument that Miliband or his allies can easily make in public. It doubles down on the risk of looking arrogant: "We think we’re going to win and when we do, we’ll have better things to do than ask the people if they want to stay in the EU" is not what you might call a populist narrative.

Still, there are at least two reasons why I think Miliband’s position is better than it looks right now.

First, the Tories are united only in relief that they have a clear position and in joy that their leader has done something unabashedly, uncompromisingly true blue Conservative. Neither of those conditions can stay in place for long. The renegotiation will not happen quickly enough for the hardline sceptics and whatever concessions Cameron extracts from fellow EU leaders will have to be matched with compromises elsewhere. Tory MPs are allergic to EU compromise.

There will be European Council meetings at least every six months between now and the election and in the run-up to each one, Conservatives will expect the Prime Minister to show progress in his grand repatriation project. Even if there is a modicum of willingness to accommodate British demands in Brussels, it won’t be on a timetable that satisfies the sceptics.

Meanwhile, Cameron is still in coalition with the Lib Dems. What Tory MPs were cheering yesterday was a great emancipation. They felt liberated. But they aren’t and when they realise it, they’ll be cross. They think they have won a right to dictate policy to Downing Street and will only get more assertive and impatient as a result. Yet the Lib Dems will also now have to become more assertive to prove that Clegg has more say over what goes on than some Euro-bashing Conservative backbencher. The potential for that dynamic to cause havoc and undermine Cameron’s position is immense.

The second reason Miliband’s position isn’t quite so bad is that he has a clearer escape route than is generally realised. In the run-up to the big Cameron speech, the Labour leader made an important policy concession: he said he would not repeal the European Union Bill. This is the piece of coalition legislation that provides for a referendum in the event of any new treaty transferring powers to Brussels. (Labour abstained when parliament voted on it.)

If there is a new EU treaty in train at some point over the next two years – which is very possible, but not certain – Miliband can say that he would, in government, honour the provisions of the act. If pressed he could even say that, yes, this new treaty looks likely to substantially alter the terms of Britain’s relations with the EU and so, yes, he would call a referendum. If he really wanted to, he could say the treaty is so substantial that the question on the ballot should be endorsement of the new arrangement or exit – thereby essentially matching Cameron’s pledge from yesterday. I don’t say this is a likely scenario, simply that the space for a relatively painless U-turn for the Labour leader may well be there should he need it.

By far the greater threat to Miliband is the prospect of his party generally lacking patience and confidence in his judgment. If opinion polls show a referendum pledge bounce for Cameron – as a few Ukip considerers slip back to the Tories – Labour’s lead could shrivel into the margin of error. At that point there is bound to be a revival of chatter about the inadequacy of the Labour leader’s performance, his perceived lack of policy clarity and want of strategic direction. Those anxieties are never far below the surface of Labour’s veneer of unity. Miliband must now hope that the even more superficial, brittle unity that David Cameron achieved in his own party yesterday ruptures first.
 

Ed Miliband delivers a speech on the EU at the CBI last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era