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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.