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 Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.