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

Promising an in/out vote would shift the debate back onto Tory territory and could wreck a future Miliband premiership.

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

The arrival of Tory 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 and has the support of the Conservative leadership) in the House of Lords is likely to set off another round of speculation over Labour's position. While Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander have consistently criticised Cameron's pledge on the grounds that it creates unnecessary uncertainty, they have been careful not to rule out the possibility of Labour promising a referendum in its 2015 manifesto. 

Asked on the Today programme this morning "how stupid" Miliband would have to be to promise a vote, Peter Mandelson replied: "I don't think that he should do so in the run-up to the next election, but I also think he’s right not to set Labour up against a referendum in any circumstances." He went on to warn that a referendum was "a very blunt instrument" that "needs to be handled with great care". On this, Miliband undoubtedly agrees. One shadow cabinet minister recently told me that the Labour leader was "instinctively opposed" to a referendum whenever the issue was discussed. This is not least because Miliband recognises that he has a good chance of being in power after the next election and does not want the opening years of his premiership to be dominated by a vote that a Labour government would find harder to win than a Tory one. A public vote to leave the EU in 2017, against Miliband's wishes, would shatter his authority. 

Despite this, some Labour figures privately suggest the party could reverse its stance following this May's European elections as evidence that it has "listened and learned" (not least if UKIP tops the poll). 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 greater grievances, or that it will define the election in the way that some Conservatives hope.

As polling by Ipsos MORI regularly shows, the EU does not even make it into the top ten of voters' concerns. Lord Ashcroft's recent study of Tory-leaning voters found that an EU referendum is "a sideshow" for most of them. He wrote: "A surprising number of those we spoke to did not realise it was even on the agenda, and were nonplussed when they found out it was. Those for whom it is important know all about it (though they sometimes doubt it will come to pass even if the Tories win). But to make it a major theme of the campaign would be to miss the chance to talk about things that matter more to more people." 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. 

Far from being a clever ruse to enhance the party's standing, a Labour pledge would shift the debate back onto Tory territory and allow Cameron to claim that a "weak" Miliband is dancing to his tune. As the Labour leader himself said when Wharton's bill was being debated in the Commons, "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." 

Miliband and Douglas Alexander have long made a coherent case against a referendum. As Tory MPs continue to disregard warnings from Ashcroft and others not to "bang on" about Europe, they should hold their nerve.