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

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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