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

Photo: Getty Images
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The hidden crisis in the National Health Service

Hospitals are no longer safe places for their staff, warns Simon Danczuk.

It feels as though not a week can pass without the media warning of a fresh “crisis in the NHS”.

But while funding shortages and the impending junior doctor strike are rightly cause for concern, another major crisis is going largely unnoticed.

Figures show that 43 per cent of A&E staff have been physically assaulted at work. Every eight minutes there is some sort of violent incident in a UK hospital.

This is unacceptable, but unfortunately cases of violence against NHS workers seem to be on the increase while the government turns a blind eye to this problem of its own making.

Plotting a graph would show a startling correlation between insufficient NHS funding and the number of doctors and nurses being attacked. As NHS budgets reach breaking point, so too do many patients.

The issue, which will be highlighted in the documentary A&E: When Patients Attack, which airs tonight on Channel 5 at 10pm, is a national scandal.

Health experts suggest that the problem can be directly linked to longer waiting times and staff cutbacks, leading to growing frustration and tension in A&E and other departments. With winter fast approaching, and the notoriously busy festive season to come, incidents of violence look set to get worse. Nobody, least of all our overworked NHS doctors and nurses, should face the prospect of going to work to be attacked, spat at or insulted.

Based at the Queen Elizabeth in Birmingham, one of the country’s biggest hospitals, When Patients Attack follows a security team which uses uniformed guards and a bank of CCTV monitors to keep hospital staff safe.

The sight of a uniformed private security team in an NHS hospital is visually jarring, it would look more at home in a high-security prison than in a place of care and compassion. But the sad reality is, guards like this are a necessary part of the NHS under a Tory Government.

A&E centres across the UK, including the one in Rochdale, are being closed or consolidated creating extra journey times for patients and more pressure on those that remain.

But there is a gaping logical flaw here. NHS trusts are spending money, which should be on patient care, on employing security staff to deal with the fallout from cuts in care.

Seeing the level of physical, verbal and racial abuse that doctors and nurses have to endure makes When Patients Attack hard to watch at times. What is clear is that many of the patients featured are not lashing out for some malicious reason, they are vulnerable and bewildered people in need of care.

Many have learning difficulties or mental health problems, others are disorientated or in pain, there are those under the influence of drink or drugs and some just have nowhere else to go. A significant amount on the security team’s time seems to be spent convincing patients who have been discharged to leave the premises.

Here we see a less obvious example of how Conservative cuts are impacting on our NHS. Hospitals are always open and always welcoming. The duty of care means that no one is turned away. As a result, they are filling the void left by homelessness shelters and local government social services.

David Cameron has made much of the Government’s plan to put mental and physical health on an “equal footing”. But this will remain little more than empty rhetoric as long as those suffering from serious and complex mental health issues continue to seek help at A&E because of a lack of any alternative.

It is not just cuts to councils and the health service that have created this epidemic of NHS violence. In my constituency of Rochdale alone, Greater Manchester Police has been forced to withdraw 150 officers from the beat because of budget cuts. Business owners and members of the public have told me that Police response times have increased dramatically since 2010. It is important that violent incidents are diffused as quickly as possible and while an in-house security team is helpful, the additional support of trained Police officers is vital. Each additional minute that NHS staff have to wait for the Police increases the risk that a situation will escalate and become more serious.

Jeremy Hunt speaks of a seven-day-a-week NHS. But these grand plans ring hollow when we see the reality on the ground in the NHS today. This government cannot even guarantee that staff can work without the fear of physical harm. Our doctors and nurses are among the hardest working people in any community. The very least they can expect is to be able to care for us in a comfortable, supportive, and above all safe, environment.


Simon Danczuk is Labour MP for Rochdale