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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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