The Tories have descended into madness on Europe - Labour should leave them to it

Ed Miliband should hold his nerve and resist demands to make his own hasty referendum pledge.

Rarely has the Conservative Party looked less like "the natural party of government" and more like a sixth form debating society. In a desperate final attempt to appease his carnivorous backbenchers, David Cameron gave way last night and agreed to a publish a draft EU referendum bill. It would not be a piece of government legislation (despite recent appearances to the contrary, this remains a coalition) but it could be taken forward by a plucky eurosceptic as a private members' bill. "Surely they'll be happy now?", the Prime Minister said (or words to that effect).

His plea for a reprieve was rejected as hastily as it was offered. Appearing on BBC News, John Baron, one of the MPs responsible for tabling the Queen's Speech amendment, simply replied: "not enough". Accusing Cameron of "panic" (he was right about that), he confirmed that he would not be withdrawing the amendment and urged all Tory ministers to vote for it. Disregarding the inconvenient fact that the Conservatives did not win the last election, he insisted that only a bill with the imprimatur of the government would suffice. Nadine Dorries, meanwhile, fresh from a party to celebrate her return to the Conservative fold, warned that a referendum in 2017 was too late, going on to repeat her demand for the Tories to run co-candidates with UKIP at the general election (the two could have a "joint logo", she mused). Once again, Cameron has tried and failed to appease the unappeasable. 

Even now, as the Conservative Party descends into the depths of euromania, there are some on the left and the right who argue that it is Labour that should be worried. Don't the opinion polls show that the public overwhelmingly support a referendum on EU membership? True, but then the polls invariably show that, if offered a say on any issue, the voters always favour it. The salient point remains that just 1 per cent of them regard it as "the most important issue" facing Britain (compared to apparently 90 per cent of Tory backbenchers) and just 7 per cent regard it as "one of the most important issues". The more time the Conservatives spend "banging on" about Europe, the less time they spend talking about the issues - the economy, jobs, housing, public services - that might actually help them win the next election. 

For this reason, among others, Ed Miliband has been right not to match Cameron's pledge of an in/out referendum. To do so now would be an act of supreme political weakness. In this instance, little is required of the Labour leader other than to stand back and watch the Conservatives indulge in another bout of political self-harm.

Those commentators who declared Cameron's referendum pledge a masterstroke that would unite the Tories, scupper UKIP and revive his party's poll ratings were wrong on every count. Miliband's own problems may be far from trivial but the longer the Tories appear to have given up listening the voters, the greater the chance that the voters will give up listening to them. 

David Cameron attends a press conference at the EU Headquarters on March 15, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How should Labour's disgruntled moderates behave?

The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition. Sometimes exiting can be brave.

When Albert O. Hirschman was writing Exit, Voice, Loyalty: Responses to decline in Firms, Organizations, and States he wasn’t thinking of the British Labour Party.  That doesn’t mean, though, that one of the world’s seminal applications of economics to politics can’t help us clarify the options open to the 80 to 90 per cent of Labour MPs who, after another week of utter chaos, are in total despair at what’s happening under Jeremy Corbyn.

According to Hirschman, people in their situation have essentially three choices – all of which stand some chance, although there are no guarantees, of turning things around sooner or later.

The first option is simply to get the hell out: exit, after all, can send a pretty powerful, market-style signal to those at the top that things are going wrong and that something has to change.

The second option is to speak up and shout out: if the leadership’s not listening then complaining loudly might mean they get the message.

The third option is to sit tight and shut up, believing that if the boat isn’t rocked it will somehow eventually make it safely to port.

Most Labour MPs have so far plumped for the third course of action.  They’ve battened down the hatches and are waiting for the storm to pass.  In some ways, that makes sense.  For one thing, Labour’s rules and Corbyn’s famous ‘mandate’ make him difficult to dislodge, and anyone seen to move against him risks deselection by angry activists.

For another, there will be a reckoning – a general election defeat so bad that it will be difficult even for diehards to deny there’s a problem: maybe Labour has to do ‘déjà vu all over again’ and lose like it did in 1983 in order to come to its senses. The problem, however, is that this scenario could still see it stuck in opposition for at least a decade. And that’s presuming that the left hasn’t so effectively consolidated its grip on the party that it can’t get out from under.

That’s presumably why a handful of Labour MPs have gone for option two – voice.  Michael Dugher, John Woodcock, Kevan Jones, Wes Streeting and, of course, John Mann have made it pretty clear they think the whole thing’s a mess and that something – ideally Jeremy Corbyn and those around him – has to give.  They’re joined by others – most recently Stephen Kinnock, who’s talked about the party having to take ‘remedial action’ if its performance in local elections turns out to be as woeful as some are suggesting.  And then of course there are potential leadership challengers making none-too-coded keynote speeches and public appearances (both virtual and real), as well as a whole host of back and frontbenchers prepared to criticise Corbyn and those around him, but only off the record.

So far, however, we’ve seen no-one prepared to take the exit option – or at least to go the whole hog. Admittedly, some, like Emma Reynolds, Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper, and Rachel Reeves, have gone halfway by pointedly refusing to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.  But nobody has so far declared their intention to leave politics altogether or to quit the party, either to become an independent or to try to set up something else.

The latter is easily dismissed as a pipe-dream, especially in the light of what happened when Labour moderates tried to do it with the SDP in the eighties.  But maybe it’s time to think again.  After all, in order to refuse even to contemplate it you have to believe that the pendulum will naturally swing back to Labour at a time when, all over Europe, the centre-left looks like being left behind by the march of time and when, in the UK, there seems precious little chance of a now shrunken, predominantly public-sector union movement urging the party back to the centre ground in the same way that its more powerful predecessors did back in the fifties and the late-eighties and nineties. 

Maybe it’s also worth wondering whether those Labour MPs who left for the SDP could and should have done things differently.  Instead of simply jumping ship in relatively small numbers and then staying in parliament, something much bolder and much more dramatic is needed.  What if over one hundred current Labour MPs simultaneously declared they were setting up ‘Real Labour’?  What if they simultaneously resigned from the Commons and then simultaneously fought scores of by-elections under that banner?

To many, even to ask the question is to answer it. The obstacles – political, procedural, and financial – are formidable and forbidding.  The risks are huge and the pay-off massively uncertain.  Indeed, the whole idea can be swiftly written off as a thought-experiment explicitly designed to demonstrate that nothing like it will ever come to pass.

On the other hand, Labour MPs, whether we use Hirschman’s three-way schema or not, are fast running out of options.  The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition.  Voice can only do so much when those you’re complaining about seem – in both senses of the word – immovable.  Exit, of course, can easily be made to seem like the coward’s way out. Sometimes, however, it really is the bravest and the best thing to do.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.