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.

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.