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.

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.

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.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.