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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.

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

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.