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Miliband must not lose control of Labour's EU referendum policy

Shadow minister Ian Austin's dramatic call for an in/out referendum next year shows how party unity is fraying.

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference on November 19, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

While Westminster digested the resignation of Tom Watson, an extraordinary intervention by shadow work and pensions minister Ian Austin emerged. Writing in his local paper The Express and Star, Austin, a close friend and former flatmate of Watson's, broke ranks to call for an in/out EU referendum on the same day as next year's European elections. With no attempt to maintain any pretence of unity, he wrote:

[T]he truth is that the UK needs to decide and I would prefer it to do so more quickly. I know this isn't Labour Party policy but my view is that we should have a referendum next year on the same day as the European elections.

On the day that the Tories vote on James Wharton's private member's bill guaranteeing an EU referendum by 2017, and as they seek to frame Ed Miliband as too "weak" to lead his party, this is political gold for David Cameron. While frontbenchers, including Ed Balls and Jim Murphy, have previously hinted that they believe a referendum is inevitable (and desirable), none have gone as far as Austin. The more open Labour divisions on Europe become, the harder it will be for Miliband to mock those of the Tories. Indeed, the impression of Labour disunity has the consequence of reinforcing Conservative unity. 

The view among Labour MPs is that at some point before the next general election, Miliband will have to signal that an EU referendum would be held in the first term of a Labour government. The Labour leader has already pledged to keep the coalition's "referendum lock", which is designed to ensure a vote is triggered whenever significant powers are transferred to Brussels.

Under the 2011 European Union Act, this would be a referendum on the new treaty/powers but as Raf noted earlier this week, Nick Clegg has already signalled that, in his view, it would need to be an in/out vote. The likelihood is that Miliband will eventually do the same and, in addition, pledge to hold a referendum even if no major powers are transferred. But when this intervention comes, it will have to be at a moment of Miliband's choosing. It was the panic with which Cameron agreed to bring forward the draft referendum bill that allowed Labour to present him as a leader who had lost control. If Miliband is to avoid the same fate, he must not tolerate any more interventions like Austin's.