Labour set to avoid promising EU referendum in general election manifesto

Party sources tell the NS that they do not expect Labour to change its stance on a referendum before May 2015.

One likely consequence of the European elections in May will be to reopen the debate over whether Labour should commit to holding an EU referendum at some point after 2015. Despite consistently criticising David Cameron's pledge, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander have been careful not to rule out the possibility of eventually matching it. A few months ago, several MPs told me that the party could come out in favour of a referendum after the elections as evidence that it had "listened and learned" to UKIP supporters (not least if Nigel Farage's party wins). 

But based on more recent conversations with Labour sources, the odds are now solidly against such a pledge. One senior strategist told me that he "does not expect" the party to go into the European elections with one stance on a referendum and into the general election with another. Instead, he said, Labour would highlight the uncertainty over Cameron's referendum pledge, such as the absence of a realistic renegotation plan, and remind voters that he has a record of broken promises in this area. The party will also do "much more" to outline its new stance on immigration, the key driver of support for UKIP. 

Separately, one shadow cabinet minister told me that Miliband was "instinctively opposed" to a referendum whenever the issue was discussed. This is not least because he 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 an unpredictable vote. A public decision to leave the EU in 2017, against Miliband's wishes, would badly damage his authority. 

Cameron's charge that Labour is unwilling to "trust the people" is one that some in Labour 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 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 noted: "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 James Wharton's EU referendum 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 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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

RMT poised to rejoin the Labour Party

The transport union is set to vote on reaffiliation to the party, with RMT leaders backing the move.

Plans are being drawn up for the RMT (the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) to reaffiliate to the Labour Party in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s significant gains in the general election, the New Statesman has learnt.

The union, which represents tube drivers and other workers across the transport sector, was expelled from the Labour Party under Tony Blair after some Scottish branches voted to support the Scottish Socialist Party instead.

But the RMT endorsed both of Corbyn’s bids for the Labour leadership and its ruling national executive committee backed a Labour vote on 8 June.

Corbyn addressed the RMT’s annual general meeting in Exeter yesterday, where he was “given a hero’s welcome”, in the words of one delegate. Mick Cash, the RMT’s general secretary, praised Corbyn as the union’s “long-term friend and comrade”.

After the meeting, Steve Hedley, assistant general secretary at the RMT, posted a picture to Facebook with John McDonnell. The caption read: “With the shadow chancellor John McDonnell arguing that we should affiliate to the Labour Party after consulting fully and democratically with our members”.

The return of the RMT to Labour would be welcomed by the party leadership with open arms. And although its comparably small size would mean that the RMT would have little effect on the internal workings of Labour Party conference or its ruling NEC, its wide spread across the country could make the union a power player in the life of local Labour parties.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496