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 allegations of abuse in sport are serious – but we must guard against hysteria

This week in the media, from Castro and the student rebels, hysteria over football coaches, and Ed Balls’s ballroom exit.

From the left’s point of view, the best that can be said of Fidel Castro, who has died at 90, is that – to echo Franklin D Roosevelt on the Nicaraguan dictator Anatasio Somoza – he may have been a son of a bitch but he was our son of a bitch. Denying Castro’s dreadful record on human rights is pointless. According to the highest estimates – which include those who perished while trying to flee the regime – the death toll during Castro’s 49 years in charge was roughly 70,000. His immediate predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, whom Castro overthrew, murdered, again according to the highest estimates, 20,000 but he ruled for a mere seven years. For both men, you can find considerably lower figures, sometimes in the hundreds. It depends on the politics of the estimator, which shows the absurdity of such reckoning.

 

Murder is murder

What is certain is that Batista ran a corrupt regime with close links to the American Mafia and presided over outrageous inequalities. Even President Kennedy, who ­approved a failed military invasion of Cuba in 1960, said that, on Batista’s record, “I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries”. Castro, on the other hand, created a far more equal society where illiteracy was almost wiped out, and free health care brought life expectancy up to levels comparable to those in the US and western Europe. You could say that the numbers saved from early deaths by Cuban medicine under Castro easily exceeded the numbers that faced firing squads.

But nothing excuses torture, murder and political imprisonment. There isn’t a celestial balance sheet that weighs atrocities against either the freedoms from ignorance and disease that the left favours or the freedoms to make money and hold private property that the right prefers. We should argue, as people always will, about which freedoms matter most. We should be united in condemning large-scale state brutality whatever its source.

 

Spirit of ʼ68

Though his regime became an ally (or, more precisely, a client) of the Soviet Union, Castro wasn’t a communist and he didn’t lead a communist uprising. This point is crucial to understanding his attraction to the mostly middle-class student rebels in Europe and America who became known as the ’68ers.

To them, communist rulers in eastern European were as uninspiring as the cautious centrists who hogged power in Western democracies. They were all grey men in suits. Castro had led a guerrilla army and wore battle fatigues. As the French writer Régis Debray explained in Revolution in the Revolution? – a book revered among the students – Castro’s band of revolutionaries didn’t start with a political programme; they developed one during “the struggle”. Their ideology grew organically in the mountains of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra.

This do-it-yourself approach seemed liberating to idealistic young people who didn’t want to bother with the tedious mechanics of bourgeois democracy or the dreary texts of Marxism-Leninism. They had permission for “direct action” whenever they felt like it without needing to ­formulate aims and objectives. They couldn’t, unfortunately, see their way to forming a guerrilla army in the Scottish Highlands or the Brecon Beacons but they could occupy a university refectory or two in Colchester or Coventry.

 

Caution over coaches

Commenting on Radio 5 Live on the case of Barry Bennell, the Crewe Alexandra coach convicted in 1998 of sexual offences against boys aged nine to 15 (the case came to fresh attention because several former professional football players went public about the abuse), an academic said that 5 per cent of boys reported being sexually abused in sport. “That’s one boy on every football pitch, every cricket pitch, every rugby pitch in the country,” he added.

This is precisely the kind of statement that turns perfectly reasonable concerns about inadequate vigilance into public hysteria. The figure comes from an online survey carried out in 2011 by the University of Edinburgh for the NSPCC. The sample of 6,000 was self-selected from emails to 250,000 students aged 18 to 22, who were asked about their experiences of physical, emotional and sexual harm in sport while aged 16 or under. “We do not make claims for the representativeness of our sample,” the researchers state.

Even if 5 per cent is accurate, the suggestion that abusers stalk every playing field in the land is preposterous. After the Jimmy Savile revelations, just about every DJ from the 1960s and 1970s fell under suspicion – along with other prominent figures, including ex-PMs – and some were wrongly arrested. Let’s hope something similar doesn’t happen to football coaches.

 

Shut up, Tony

Brexit “can be stopped”, Tony Blair told this magazine last week. No doubt it can, but I do wish Blair and other prominent Remain supporters would shut up about it. The Brexiteers have spent 20 years presenting themselves as victims of an elite conspiracy to silence them. Committed to this image, they cannot now behave with the grace usually expected of winners. Rather, they must behave as though convinced that the prize will shortly be snatched from them, and treat any statement from Remainers, no matter how innocuous, with suspicion and resentment. Given enough rope, they will, one can reasonably hope, eventually hang themselves.

 

Strictly Balls

Perhaps, however, Nigel Farage et al are justified in their paranoia. As I observed here last week, the viewers of Strictly Come Dancing, in the spirit of voters who backed Brexit and Donald Trump, struck more blows against elite experts by keeping Ed Balls in the competition even after judges gave him abysmal ratings. Now it is all over. The BBC contrived a “dance-off” in which only the judges’ votes counted. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage