It's Tom Watson's attack on Labour's EU referendum policy that should really worry Miliband

The former election co-ordinator's call for an early EU referendum highlights the danger of Labour replicating Tory divisions over Europe.

Ed Miliband rarely goes a day at the moment without some damaging intervention from a Labour figure. With the party holding off on all policy announcements until next month's conference, the vacuum has been filled by malcontents from past and present. The latest example is Tom Watson's interview in today's Guardian. The party's former campaign co-ordinator reminds us that the row over Falkirk remains unresolved, declaring that "a huge injustice has been done" to Karie Murphy, his former office manager and Unite's candidate of choice in the constituency. He adds: "When they finally complete this inquiry they will find out that she hasn't done anything wrong."

But more harmful than Watson's comments on Falkirk (which are merely a reiteration of his long-standing position) are those on Labour's EU referendum policy. No longer bound by collective responsibility, he calls for the party to support an early referendum next May (becoming the most senior figure in the party to do so) and criticises it for allowing the Tories to set the terms of debate. He warns: "Cameron has set the agenda on Europe; he wants a referendum, and if we don't engage with that debate then it won't be on our terms. So I would argue for a referendum next May – get it out the way before the election. That should be Labour's position. Yes to a referendum, and yes to remaining part of Europe."

His stance echoes that of shadow work and pensions minister Ian Austin, who broke ranks last month to call for an in/out EU referendum on the same day as next year's European elections: "[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."

Coming out in support of an early referendum is one option that is under regular discussion within the shadow cabinet. It would have the advantage of getting Labour off the hook while also splitting the Tories down the middle. But if and when Miliband makes his move, it will have to be at a time of his choosing. It was the panic with which Cameron agreed to bring forward the draft referendum bill that allowed Labour to frame him as a weak leader who had lost control of his party. If Miliband is to avoid the same fate, he must seek to prevent more interventions like Watson's. A process by which Labour MPs drag Miliband towards a referendum and he eventually capitulates would be a political gift for the Tories.

Labour MP Tom Watson, who resigned as the party's campaign co-ordinator six weeks ago. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.