Ed Miliband delivers his speech on the EU at the London Business School earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband's EU referendum stance shows he is confident of election victory

The very fact that the Labour leader feels secure enough to affront Eurosceptics suggests he believes No.10 is within reach.

Ed Miliband always seems to get there in the end. Labour now has a settled policy on an EU referendum: there will be one in the event of a treaty that transfers powers to Brussels. Otherwise there won’t.

It is a sign of how briskly hardline sceptics have set the pace of British debate on this subject that Miliband’s position is technically more enthusiastic about a plebiscite than the stance that David Cameron brought to government in 2010.

The "Sovereignty Act" passed by the coalition in 2011 envisages a vote on a specific treaty if ministers judge that it surrenders power. Labour’s offer upgrades that to a straight in/out vote. From a pro-European perspective that is a sensible adjustment. A vote on a specific treaty practically invites the public to express their distaste for the EU without confronting the risk of actually leaving the club. That makes a "no" much more likely. Pretty much the only way to get a "yes" in any European poll is to make it an all or nothing choice – and even then the odds are tight.

As George wrote earlier, the essential judgments that Miliband has made are, first, that most of Britain is not anywhere near as obsessed with the EU as the Conservative Party consistently proves itself to be and, second, that Labour’s position is only weakened by appearing to take policy dictation from Tory backbenchers via the dubious proxy of a weak-willed David Cameron.

Another important calculation is the aversion that many businesses have to the prospect of gambling with British EU membership (or trusting the people, as the sceptics prefer to see it). As one senior shadow cabinet minister put it to me recently, avoiding a vote on Europe is "pretty much the only Labour policy business likes." Since Miliband’s relations with captains of capitalism are pretty shaky there is obvious merit in underlying the one big interest they have in common. Indeed, the CBI has come out in strong support of the new Labour position, which will be a source of great cheer in the party’s upper echelons.  

The reaction from Tories and Ukip has been predictably intemperate. They each point to the essential unlikelihood of a referendum ever being held under Miliband’s plan and denounce this is a betrayal of the national will. Their problem is that those arguments resonate best among people who have long since decided they won’t be voting Labour. Meanwhile, efforts to sustain a prolonged argument on the subject risk looking quixotic at best, unhinged at worst when most voters’ concerns are elsewhere. Crucially, Labour’s position is now neatly aligned with the Lib Dem stance, enabling a two-against-one dynamic in the argument over who in this debate is reasonable and who are the fanatics. (It would be two-against-two if you count Ukip, but Farage’s party has to keep its distance from the Tories to sustain its own distinct anti-everyone-else identity.)

Above all, Miliband’s position has the virtue of being practical in the event that he ends up being Prime Minister. (He doesn't want to squander his limited political capital in a battle to save Britain's EU membership any more than Cameron does, but only the Tory leader has signed up to that torment.) The very fact that the Labour leader feels secure enough to affront Eurosceptics in the way has done today suggests increasing confidence on his part that No. 10 is within reach.

The political impact of formulating this new position on Europe is probably diminished by its agonisingly long gestation. Countless variants and different permutations of referendums on possible dates and different ways of declaring there will be no referendum have been debated in Miliband’s office (but notably never at shadow cabinet). But this is the Labour leader’s style. He ponders, he waits, he calculates the risk, he decides. It is an approach that tests the patience of his party and provokes sneers in the media. But it also disorients the Tories and has, on balance, proved quietly effective. Increasingly, Labour MPs can be heard admiring their leader’s timing and judgement. No one can be sure that his plan to reach Downing Street next May will come off. But it is getting progressively harder to deny that, in keeping with Miliband's ponderous style, he really might get there in the end. 

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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder