The case for a Labour EU referendum pledge is becoming ever weaker

Promising an in/out vote would shift the debate back onto Tory territory and allow Cameron to claim that Miliband is dancing to his tune.

After some fine filibustering by Labour MPs, debate on Conservative MP James Wharton's EU referendum bill (which would enshrine in law his party's pledge to hold a vote by the end of 2017) has been adjourned until 22 November. The most notable intervention today came from Ed Miliband, who told broadcasters: "I think what we see today is the Conservative Party talking to itself about Europe when actually what they should be doing is talking to the country about the most important issue that people are facing, which is the cost of living crisis. That’s what Labour’s talking about; that’s the right priority for the country."

What is striking is the confidence with which he dismissed the Tories' referendum antics. Having defined the debate through his proposed energy price freeze and his focus on living standards, he speaks from a position of strength. The case for Labour to pledge to hold an in/out EU referendum (discussed by Rafael in his column this week), most likely before 2017, is becoming weaker every day. Once viewed as a clever ruse to split the Conservatives (something that Adam Afriyie's amendment notably failed to do), it would now shift the debate back onto Tory territory and allow David Cameron to claim that a "weak" Miliband is dancing to his tune.

Despite this, some Labour figures privately suggest the party could reverse its stance following next year's European elections as evidence that it has "listened and learned". Cameron's charge that Labour is unwilling to "trust the people" is one they fear will haunt them during the general election campaign. Yet there is no evidence that the Tories' pledge will succeed in winning back significant numbers of voters from UKIP, most of whom have far wider grievances, or that it will define the election in the way that many Conservatives hope. As polling by Ipsos MORI regularly shows, the EU does not even make it into the top ten of voters' concerns. If there is an electoral cost to Labour from refusing to match Cameron's promise, it will likely be too small to make a difference.

All of this is before we consider the disruptive effect that a post-2015 referendum would have on Miliband's governing agenda and the danger of an 'out' vote (something that a Labour government would find harder to avoid than a Conservative one). Miliband and Douglas Alexander have long made a coherent case against a referendum. As the Tories continue to flout wise warnings not to "bang on" about Europe, they should hold their nerve.

Ed Miliband with shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander at the Labour conference in Brighton earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.