Why Miliband shouldn't use his conference speech to promise an EU referendum

The EU doesn't even make it into the top ten of voters' concerns. Miliband's speech should focus on housing, wages and jobs.

For months, pressure has been steadily growing on Ed Miliband to pledge to hold an EU referendum. The shadow work and pensions minister Ian Austin recently broke ranks to call for a vote on the same day as next year's European elections and Tom Watson did the same in his Guardian interview last weekend. Inside the shadow cabinet, Ed Balls, Jim Murphy and Jon Cruddas are among those who believe the party should commit to a referendum to neutralise the charge of "denying the people a say".

Inevitably, then, talk is turning to whether Miliband should use his conference speech next month to promise a vote either before or after the next election and "lance the EU boil". Today's FT reports that he could pledge to hold a referendum in the autumn of 2015 "to capitalise on a post-victory honeymoon". One aide is quoted as saying: "The idea is that it would be a truly eye-catching announcement". 

But for several reasons, it's an option Miliband would be wise to reject. A leader's conference speech is one of the few times of the year when they are guaranteed widespread media coverage and Miliband would be foolish to waste this opportunity by making a referendum pledge the centrepiece of his address. While the EU is an issue that obsesses press proprietors and Tory backbenchers, it is not one that animates voters. As the most recent Ipsos MORI issues index shows, just 1 per cent regard it as "the most important issue" facing the country and just 7 per cent as one of "the most important issues", figures that mean it doesn't even make the top ten of voters' concerns (it is ranked 14th). It's true that the public overwhelmingly support an EU referendum but as pollsters regularly attest, this merely reflects their general predilection for such votes. 

Voters don't care about the EU

Far better for Miliband to maintain his laser-like focus on "the cost of living" and explain simply and directly how a Labour government would improve voters' lives. He could do so by pledging to build a million affordable homes, or by promising to expand use of the living wage (for instance, by making it a condition of all public sector contracts and establishing "living wage zones"), or by committing to universal childcare for all pre-school children.  

An EU referendum pledge would not prevent him from doing any of this but it would inevitably overshadow the rest of the speech and allow the Tories to boast that a "weak" Miliband had been forced onto their territory. There is a case for Miliband committing to a referendum before 2015 (although I remain sceptical) but next month's conference would be one of the worst moments to do so. 

Ed Miliband delivers his speech at last year's Labour conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.