Why Miliband would be foolish to match the Tory EU referendum pledge

Such a clear U-turn would cement a corrosive narrative that could prove far more damaging to his prospects of becoming Prime Minister – that of weakness.

Those of a nostalgic bent might find the enduring ability of 'Europe' to cause such disruption in British politics somewhat reassuring. After all, it has been a reliably consistent source of crisis for both Labour and the Conservative Party for nearly 40 years. Labour’s European troubles are often forgotten but the party was at least as exercised over Europe in the 70s and early 80s as the Conservative Party has been since the 90s. Indeed, the last referendum on Britain’s EU membership nearly split the Labour Party in 1975, while the party eventually did split, in large part over Europe, in 1981.

Now it seems Labour’s turn to be the party engaging in undignified convulsions over Europe has come round again. The Conservatives probably can’t believe their luck.

Incredibly, given the inordinate amount of time spent addressing the issue by all parties, Europe has never registered as more than a blip on the most important concerns of British voters. Even now, at a time when Europe is rarely out of the news and politicians and journalists alike fixate on the future of the UK’s EU membership, just 7% of voters mention it when asked to identify "important issues facing Britain today" (43% mention the economy; 38% immigration) and just 1% identify it as the "most" important.

Put simply, a pre-occupation with Europe is not a useful trait for winning elections (something to which former Conservative leader William Hague’s disastrous 'Save the Pound' campaign of the 2001 election attests).

And yet Labour bigwigs like Ed Balls and Jon Cruddas are convinced that neglecting to match or better David Cameron’s promise of an in/out EU referendum by 2017 could be an election-losing move.

In fact, the opposite is likely to be true. Such a clear U-turn, made in response to pressure from Miliband's (notional) subordinates, would cement a corrosive narrative that could prove far more damaging to his prospects of becoming Prime Minister – that of weakness.

Miliband has refused to match David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum in 2017 on the grounds that to do so now would create a long period of uncertainty over Britain’s membership which would be detrimental to British business. The party is committed to retaining the coalition's 'referendum lock', however, meaning that in the event of a further transfer of powers from the UK to the EU, a referendum would automatically be triggered.

This current position is a perfectly reasonable one. Deviating from it would play into the hands of the Conservatives and raise further questions about his competence as a leader. Beyond the leadership issue, there are two other reasons why it’s frankly a lousy idea:

1) It suits Labour to focus on the economy and public services and leave the European issue to the Conservatives. Matching the Tory pledge would cast the Conservatives as a party leading the way on Europe, rather than one that simply cannot help itself from obsessing over an issue that means relatively little to most of the public.

2) The electoral benefits of doing so would likely be negligible – Labour is a pro-European party; voters ready to change their vote based on the offer of an in/out referendum are likely to be voters who want to leave the EU and are thus probably beyond Labour’s reach regardless of its stance. 

There has been some discussion in Labour ranks of calling for a referendum before the next election. Those in favour argue that it would throw the Tories into disarray, while remaining consistent with Labour’s position that a referendum with a long lead time would undermine investment in British business. Such a move would risk charges of rank opportunism but far more importantly would open the door to Labour’s worst-case scenario – a British exit from the EU. Add to that the fact that polls indicate most voters to be in favour of renegotiation, rather than an immediate referendum and it begins to look like a less than astute move.

Ed Miliband should be wary of those who would put so much public pressure on a leader to reverse a position he is known to hold on principle, particularly when, as now, he is vulnerable to charges of weakness and indecision. Calling for a referendum at the Labour conference in September, as some are suggesting, would not look bold in this context, it would look spineless – quite possibly a 'quiet man turning up the volume' moment…

Ed Miliband attends a Q&A session at the Eric Liddle centre on 23 August, 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

Richard Burden
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The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016

Xenophobia does not usually lead to Srebrenica. But it can do.

Two weeks ago, I joined a visit to Bosnia organised by Remember Srebrenica. If you have ever seen one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Northern France, you will have a sense of what the cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, is like. Row upon row of identical white headstones stretching into the distance. Whereas in France, of course, most of the headstones are marked by the cross, in Potocari they are white obelisks. Overwhelmingly, they mark the graves of Muslims.

In the 1990s, the old battery factory of Potocari was the headquarters of Dutch troops. They had been deployed to uphold the United Nations designation of the enclave as a safe area. Their presence, however, did not stop Serb troops from rounding up around 25,000 people sheltering at the base in July 1995. Once the UN troops stood aside, families were divided. Most of the women and children were loaded and sent west to areas of the country still controlled by the Bosnian government. The men and boys were loaded on to separate trucks. Within days, most of them were systematically shot.

Many other men and boys had already taken to the woods to escape, only to face shells, snipers and ambush on the way. Some, like 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic, made it through to free territory around Tuzla. Many did not. Those did not die in the woods were either persuaded to give themselves up, or were captured. Like the men and boys who had been taken from outside the UN base at Potocari, most simply disappeared. To this day, their bones are still being found in or near mass graves in eastern Bosnia.

And so, 21 years on, I met Hasan at Potocari. July1995 was the last time he saw his twin brother Hussein, his father Aziz or his uncle, Hasan.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Srebrenica massacre as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War. Indeed, the word massacre doesn’t convey the enormity of what happened. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 1990s Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of involvement in genocide. The verdict in the trial of military leader Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

Nobody who visits Potocari can fail to be moved by what you see there. For me, it brought back memories of how, as a new MP back in the 1990s, I was one of those calling for more assertive international action to stop the carnage that was unfolding in Bosnia. It was an unfamiliar position to find myself in. All my political life until that point, I had been amongst those opposing involvement in military action abroad. Now I found myself supporting intervention. For three years before the Srebrenica genocide, people in Sarajevo had been starved of food, medicines and even the means to defend themselves as their city was remorselessly pounded from the hills that surround it. We knew it. We could see it on TV. We also saw that neither Europe nor NATO nor the UN were taking action that could have stopped it.

There were always so many geopolitical reasons not to intervene effectively. I heard them day after day from Ministers in the House of Commons. But that did not help the men, women and children who were dying in Sarajevo, and in 1995 it did not save Hasan’s twin brother, his father, his uncle or the 8,000 others who ended up in the mass graves around Srebrenica.

Since I have returned from Bosnia, two things keep dominating my thinking. The first is about Syria. The political circumstances that have led to the destruction of Aleppo today are not the same as those facing Sarajevo in the 1990s. For people trapped there though, the parallels must feel much more real than the differences. I don’t claim to have an off-the-shelf action plan for what the international community should do today any more than anyone else does. I just keep thinking how in twenty years’ time, people visiting Aleppo - hopefully reconstructed as Sarajevo has been today - will ask: “How could the world have let this happen in 2016?” What will be our answer?

The other thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.

What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.

Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being "them" not "us", don't shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and a Shadow Transport Minister. He visited Bosnia with the Remembering Srebrenica charity in October 2016. You can find out more about the Remembering Srebrenica charity here.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.