The chances of an EU referendum in the next parliament are wildly overstated

A Conservative majority remains unlikely and EU treaty change could take many years to come to fruition.

If promising referendums were a good way of winning votes then you can be sure there would be more politicians promising them. There have been two (nationwide) held in the past 40 years: one on the UK’s membership of the European Economic Community in 1975; the other on the voting system in 2011. Polls suggest they are always popular in theory, (after all, who could be against ‘giving the people a say’?) but in practice, voters generally seem happy to be left alone outside of election time (which probably explains 2011’s somewhat deflating 42% turnout).

Why do I mention this? Chiefly to challenge the notion that a growing public appetite is making an in/out EU referendum inevitable. The surging popularity of the UK Independence Party and the Conservative Party’s loud commitment to a referendum in 2017 have lent credence to the idea that an unstoppable momentum is building in favour of a referendum in the next parliament (and possibly before). It's a case that has been wildly overstated.

Polls show two-thirds of voters in favour of a referendum on EU membership, but there is little evidence the issue would induce many of them to change their votes at an election. In fact quite the reverse: just 7% of voters mention Europe when asked to list “important issues facing Britain today” with only 2% identifying it as “the most important”. It speaks volumes that UKIP, a party whose raison d’être is to pull the country out of the EU, spends most of its time these days talking about immigration rather than Brussels. The two are related of course (Nigel Farage warns of an impending tide of Romanian criminals once immigration restrictions lapse in 2014), but the 7% of voters listing Europe among their top issues is dwarfed by the 35% mentioning immigration, the 50% mentioning the economy and the 26% mentioning the NHS. Put simply, the EU question is unlikely to play a significant part in the 2015 general election. Labour and the Lib Dems have little to fear from failing to match the Conservative pledge.

As to that pledge itself, it is only certain to be fulfilled in the event the Conservatives win an outright majority. But the chances of this appear to be diminishing. Current polling projects a Labour majority of around 100 seats. This is almost certainly too generous to Labour if one assumes a modest revival in the economy and the return of some UKIP voters to the Conservatives ahead of polling day (both of which seem likely). However, for the Tories to improve on their 2010 performance they would need to buck the trend of the last eight elections, which have seen the governing party's vote share fall on each occasion. There are no immutable laws of politics, but the last election’s circumstances were very conducive to a Conservative win (13-year old government, faltering economy, deeply unpopular PM); their removal and the added threat from UKIP suggest the trend is unlikely to be broken in 2015.

If one expects a Conservative defeat at the next election then a referendum is no more likely now than it was in January 2011 when the coalition government first legislated for a  ‘referendum lock’. This is a law mandating a referendum in the event of treaty change which transfers more powers from the UK to Brussels. Both Labour and the Lib Dems have pledged to retain the lock. This is significant. Nick Clegg has stated that it is a question of “when, not if” the UK holds a referendum. In the long run, this is probably true.

Yet EU treaty change could take many years to come to fruition. French President François Hollande, who will be in power until at least 2016, is desperate to avoid it, not least because the last one, Lisbon, split his party. The Netherlands has also expressed a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Balancing the competing demands of debtor countries and creditors, once it starts, will also likely be a long, laborious process. And that process isn’t even close to beginning. Meanwhile, while the Lisbon Treaty took just six months to negotiate, it was almost entirely based on the failed EU Constitution which took three and a half years from proposal to the start of the doomed ratification process.

Beyond the significant question marks over when a referendum would actually take place, there is also the small matter of the likely result. Readers of ASR’s Politics Monthly will be familiar with our position on the current polling data, which shows a plurality of voters in favour of exit. This, in our view, simply reflects the one-sided nature of the debate that has dominated discourse over Europe in Britain for the past two decades. There has been little incentive for politicians in favour of Britain’s EU membership to argue its case from day to day – passionate arguments for maintaining the status quo aren’t the stuff great political oratory is made of – but a widely-publicised referendum would likely prompt many who have up to now kept quiet to speak up.

On one side of the debate would be UKIP, the eurosceptic press and a cabal of backbench, mostly Conservative, MPs; on the other would likely be the leaders of all three main parties, the non-eurosceptic press and, potentially the trump card, a majority of the business community. Faced with arguments from non-partisan business people that leaving the EU would cost thousands of British jobs, we believe the British public would, reluctantly perhaps, vote to stay.

David Cameron delivers his speech on the UK's relationship with the EU at Bloomberg's headquarters in London on 23 January. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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