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.