Ed Miliband with shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander at the Labour conference last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's view on an EU referendum - a work in progress

Miliband doesn't want to make a pledge that raises more questions than it answers.

The Times reported yesterday that Labour will commit to a referendum on Britain’s EU membership – but will not match David Cameron’s promise of a vote before the end of 2017.

The story is more an act of confident speculation than a declaration of new policy. Sources who are familiar with the opposition’s perpetual agonising over this issue say the old line – now is not the right time to commit to an in/out vote –  hasn’t changed.

Consistency on this point is important to the Labour high command because they want to present Ed Miliband as the man who thinks about these issues in terms of the long-term national interest, in contrast with David Cameron who flits around chasing the latest whim of his back benchers.

That doesn’t mean Labour aren’t considering how to address the referendum challenge. It is a rolling conversation in Miliband’s inner circle and the lack of clarity has been a source of irritation to the leader. One senior party figure recently told me it was the topic Miliband least relishes in preparation for interviews. He knows the line, but senses that it is wearing thin. So, despite the formal denials, I’m increasingly confident there will be some shift in the position and the likeliest moment to do it (as I’ve argued before) is when Labour launches its campaign ahead of May’s European parliamentary elections.

The position outlined in the Times also sounds like a plausible candidate for the place that Labour might end up with. It is worth noting that the party has already accepted the terms of the coalition’s so-called "sovereignty bill" – the 2011 act that creates a "referendum lock" in the event that Britain signs a treaty involving the cession of powers to Brussels. Of course, there is a big difference between a treaty that ministers accept involves transfers of sovereignty and one that ministers can claim does no such thing.

A Labour source points out that the former category of European deal– the kind for which the sovereignty act was devised – is actually pretty unlikely, even if the current institutional tinkering to fix the single currency results in a formal treaty. Such a treaty would obviously require greater integration among eurozone members but Britain would, by the same token, be excused from any federalising clauses. In other words, it isn’t quite true to say that Labour has already de facto accepted there will be a referendum if and when the next EU treaty comes along. Labour has only accepted that current statute insists that a certain kind of treaty necessitates a national vote.

Yet a factor in Labour’s calculations is that a referendum on a treaty is a lot easier to lose than a straight in/out vote. People feel more comfortable striking down some pesky piece of paper from Brussels than formally severing ties with the union. For that reason – since the overwhelming majority of Labour wants the UK to stay in the EU – it makes sense for any vote that is held to be on the bigger question of membership. (This would also align Labour’s position pretty squarely with the Lib Dem view. That gives Clegg and Miliband two-against-one security in arguing that they have the sensible, pragmatic position and Cameron’s date-specific pledge is born of impractical ideological impulse.)

One of many reasons why Labour remains cautious in this whole area is that anything that looks like a commitment to a referendum raises far more questions than it answers. Those at the top of the party who have counselled against a definitive pledge say it is delusional to think that matching Cameron’s line – or similar – closes the issue down. On the contrary, it provokes a series of trickier tests: Would Labour also renegotiate membership before putting it to a vote? On what terms? Would powers be "repatriated?" Miliband is in no hurry to start getting bogged down in that kind of detail, all of which involves debating on terms set by Cameron to the dictation of Tory back benchers. And that is the outcome the Labour leader most wants to avoid.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The UK must reflect on its own role in stoking tension over North Korea

World powers should follow the conciliatory approach of South Korea, not its tempestuous neighbour. 

South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in has done something which took enormous bravery. As US and North Korean leaders rattle their respective nuclear sabres at one another, Jae-in called for negotiations and a peaceful resolution, rejecting the kind of nationalist and populist response preferred by Trump and Kim Jong-un.

In making this call, Jae-in has chosen the path of most resistance. It is always much easier to call for one party in a conflict to do X or Y than to sit round a table and thrash through the issues at hand. So far the British response has sided largely with the former approach: Theresa May has called on China to clean up the mess while the foreign secretary Boris Johnson has slammed North Korea as “reckless”.

China undoubtedly has a crucial role to play in any solution to the North and South Korean conflict, and addressing the mounting tensions between Pyongyang and Washington but China cannot do it alone. And whilst North Korea’s actions throughout this crisis have indeed been reckless and hugely provocative, the fact that the US has flown nuclear capable bombers close to the North Korean border must also be condemned. We should also acknowledge and reflect on the UK’s own role in stoking the fires of tension: last year the British government sent four Typhoon fighter jets to take part in joint military exercises in the East and South China seas with Japan. On the scale of provocation, that has to rate pretty highly too.

Without being prepared to roll up our sleeves and get involved in complex multilateral negotiations there will never be an end to these international crises. No longer can the US, Britain, France, and Russia attempt to play world police, carving up nations and creating deals behind closed doors as they please. That might have worked in the Cold War era but it’s anachronistic and ineffective now. Any 21st century foreign policy has to take account of all the actors and interests involved.

Our first priority must be to defuse tension. I urge PM May to pledge that she will not send British armed forces to the region, a move that will only inflame relations. We also need to see her use her influence to press both Trump and Jong-un to stop throwing insults at one another across the Pacific Ocean, heightening tensions on both sides.

For this to happen they will both need to see that serious action - as opposed to just words - is being taken by the international community to reach a peaceful solution. Britain can play a major role in achieving this. As a member of the UN Security Council, it can use its position to push for the recommencing of the six party nuclear disarmament talks involving North and South Korea, the US, China, Russia, and Japan. We must also show moral and practical leadership by signing up to and working to enforce the new UN ban on nuclear weapons, ratified on 7 July this year and voted for by 122 nations, and that has to involve putting our own house in order by committing to the decommissioning of Trident whilst making plans now for a post-Trident defence policy. It’s impossible to argue for world peace sat on top of a pile of nuclear weapons. And we need to talk to activists in North and South Korea and the US who are trying to find a peaceful solution to the current conflict and work with them to achieve that goal.

Just as those who lived through the second half of the 20th century grew accustomed to the threat of a nuclear war between the US and Russia, so those of us living in the 21st know that a nuclear strike from the US, North Korea, Iran, or Russia can never be ruled out. If we want to move away from these cyclical crises we have to think and act differently. President Jae-in’s leadership needs to be now be followed by others in the international community. Failure to do so will leave us trapped, subject to repeating crises that leave us vulnerable to all-out nuclear war: a future that is possible and frightening in equal measure.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.