Clegg is propping up Miliband's EU policy

Both pro-EU, both queasy about a referendum. Who will jump first?

In increments the Liberal Democrat position on an EU referendum is shifting towards full-blown commitment. Nick Clegg has already conceded the point that the big question is "when, not if" the British public is invited to choose how European it wants to be. Today, in the first of what are promised to be monthly press conferences, he clarified the point that a referendum on any future EU treaty would necessarily have to be an in/out vote.

This is an important distinction because, under the 2011 European Union Act (aka the “Sovereignty Act”) a referendum on any substantial new treaty is automatic. Well, actually it is semi-automatic. Ministers can still declare a treaty insubstantial in terms of powers being shared in Brussels and block the plebiscite. Largely for that reason, the Sovereignty Act never satisfied eurosceptic Tory back benchers, although their satisfaction was, of course, David Cameron’s only motive for passing the law in the first place.

Now the Sovereignty Act is serving an entirely different purpose. It is the temporary get out clause for Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband. The Labour leader quietly acquiesced to the measure last year, meaning he too has signed up to a referendum in the event of a major treaty revision. All that remains is for Miliband to clarify, as Clegg has done, that this would effectively be an in/out poll and the two parties’ positions will be indistinguishable.

MPs in both parties think that position is unsustainable. Very senior Lib Dems have told me they recognise the implausibility of going into a general election campaign in 2015 without a referendum pledge in their manifesto when they had one in 2010. In other words, the wheel is being turned slowly but the direction is clear enough. By polling day, Clegg will have stripped away the caveats and signed up to national vote on EU membership. There are plenty on the Labour side, including a good number of shadow cabinet ministers, who think Miliband will ultimately have to make the same calculation.

The Tories are confident that their commitment to a referendum appeals beyond the ranks of militant eurosceptics. It is, they say, a point of principle – consulting the people and accepting their judgement. The fact that the Tories would split down the middle when it came to actually deciding how to vote in this great democratic consultation is a worry for after the election. Before polling day the only point that matters to Cameron is that he can insist that his party trusts the people and that labour doesn’t. As I wrote a few weeks ago there is mounting anxiety in the Labour ranks that such an attack has deadly resonance.

Miliband has good reasons for not promising an EU vote. Referendums are a dreadful policy tool. There are plenty of important decisions affecting national sovereignty, trade and international diplomacy that aren’t put to a vast national show of hands. Besides, why would an incoming Labour government want to spend its first year in office organising a campaign that only exists because Cameron (who by this stage would be the ex-leader of the Conservative party) felt bullied into something by his backbenchers, Ukip and their press cheerleaders?

Labour’s position is not as ridiculous as many Tories insist. Those who are obsessed with Europe naturally overestimate how much it matters to everyone else and how relevant it will be to their voting intentions. There is always the possibility that Tories banging on about Brussels stokes the sense of grievance among people who will always feel betrayed by Cameron, while signalling to moderate voters that the Conservatives are uninterested in their concerns. Cameron tends to treat his party's euroscepticism like an itchy rash. He gives into the temptation to scratch it hard, which feels good for a while but only makes it angrier, nastier-looking and harder to ignore in the long term.

So, in theory at least, Labour could hold a line against a referendum insisting that the nation’s priorities are elsewhere. Let Cameron and Co. swivel their eyes in imitation of Ukip, Miliband might say, while those of a more moderate disposition talk about jobs, growth, the cost of living etc. Except Miliband isn’t yet talking about those things in a way that captures the public imagination. Labour seem marooned between their old position of resisting austerity and their election pitch, which will be some variant of fiscal discipline with a conscience.

This Friday, parliament will vote on a Tory backbench motion affirming Cameron’s earlier pledge of a referendum some time in the next parliament. It cannot be legally binding on a successor parliament so its value is entirely symbolic. Labour MPs will for the most part stay away. Nick Clegg today confirmed that, as far as this particular legislative ruse is concerned, the Lib Dem position is again identical to Labour’s. The junior coalition party would not, he said, "waste any time helping the Conservatives indulge in their own internal feuds on the floor of the House of Commons on Friday."

But all the while Clegg is manoeuvring into a position where he accepts the inevitability of a European referendum. When he does so he will also position the Lib Dems as unequivocal and united campaigners for an "in" vote, drawing a clear contrast with the Tories. This poses a new hazard for Miliband, who is as instinctive a pro-European as you will find in parliament these days. If Clegg jumps first and declares himself the pro-referendum, pro-EU candidate, where does that leave the Labour leader? His allies say he will make a decision about Labour’s European policy based on principle alone; that he will not have his agenda dictated by media pressure or tactical Tory games. But by the time he has made up his mind, he could find that the clear positions – for and against; in and out – are taken. Then Labour once again will be left looking like the party that plays catch-up and whose defining approach to tricky issues is a preference not to talk about them.

Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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