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.

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“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.