Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI conference in London in 2012 - his decision not to guarantee an in/out referendum could help to drive a wedge between the Tories and business. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Miliband is right not to promise an EU referendum

Guaranteeing an in/out vote would have shifted the debate back onto Tory territory and could have wrecked a future Miliband premiership.

Ed Miliband has stood firm against the europhobes. As I revealed he would last month, the Labour leader has confirmed that he will not match David Cameron's guarantee of an in/out EU referendum in the next parliament. In an article in today's FT (to be followed by a speech at the London Business School at 10:45am), he announces that a public vote on the UK's membership will be held under Labour if new powers are transferred from Britain to Brussels (a tougher version of the coalition's referendum lock, which only mandates a vote on specific treaty changes). But crucially, he also makes it clear that he does not believe this condition will be met: "It is unlikely there will be any such proposal in the next parliament." In other words, don't expect a referendum under Labour. Miliband, who, as one shadow cabinet member told me, has always been "instinctively opposed" to a vote, has merely provided himself with some protective cover.

There are plenty who argue that his decision not to match Cameron's pledge is a profound misjudgement. They warn that it will allow the Tories to frame Labour as unwilling to "trust the people" and make it easier for them to lure back UKIP defectors (as the only main party committed to a referendum). But the truth is that Miliband's decision not to guarantee a vote is one of the wisest of his leadership. 

Far from being a clever ruse to wrongfoot the Tories, a referendum pledge would have shifted the debate back onto Conservative territory and enabled Cameron to claim that a "weak" Miliband was dancing to his tune. Aware of this, the Labour leader will maintain his laser-like focus on living standards, the issue which has defined the agenda since his conference speech and on which his party continues to enjoy a substantial lead over the Tories. As he has said before, "I think what we see is the Conservative Party talking to itself about Europe when actually what they should be doing is talking to the country about the most important issue that people are facing, which is the cost of living crisis. That’s what Labour’s talking about; that’s the right priority for the country." 

Amongst other things, the party's focus on growth, rather than a fantastical renegotiation plan, will help to drive a wedge between the Tories and business (it is no coincidence that Miliband's article was placed in the FT and that his speech is at the London Business School). As one Labour source told me, while many large firms disapprove of Labour's stance on energy and banking, they are far more troubled by the threat of EU withdrawal under a Conservative-led government. Martin Sorrell recently revealed that he and others had told Cameron that "if he were to drop the referendum he would be a shoo-in". That's almost certainly not the case (as Sorrell appeared to forget, most voters support a referendum) but it shows how desperate businesses are for Britain to remain in the EU. 

Cameron's charge that Labour is denying the people their say is one that some MPs fear will haunt the party during the general election campaign. Yet there is no evidence that the Tories' pledge will succeed in winning back significant numbers of voters from UKIP, most of whom have far wider grievances, or that it will define the 2015 contest in the way that some Conservatives hope. As polling by Ipsos MORI has consistently shown, the EU does not even make it into the top ten of voters' concerns (it is currently ranked 18th). Labour strategists would like nothing more than for the Tories to make one of their main dividing lines an issue that most voters do not care about. The more time the Conservatives spend "banging on" about Europe, the less time they spend talking about the issues - the economy, jobs, housing, public services - that might actually help them win the next election.

The public may favour an EU referendum but then they invariably support a vote on any issue if given the choice. The salient point remains that just 2 per cent regard it as "the most important issue" facing Britain (compared to 90 per cent of Conservative backbenchers)  and just 6 per cent regard it as "one of the most important issues". Lord Ashcroft's recent study of Tory-leaning voters found that even for them an EU referendum is "a sideshow". He wrote: "A surprising number of those we spoke to did not realise it was even on the agenda, and were nonplussed when they found out it was. Those for whom it is important know all about it (though they sometimes doubt it will come to pass even if the Tories win). But to make it a major theme of the campaign would be to miss the chance to talk about things that matter more to more people." If there is an electoral cost to Labour from refusing to match Cameron's promise, it will likely be too small to make a difference. 

Miliband has rightly judged that the dangers of a cast-iron guarantee far outweigh any potential benefits. This is not least because he recognises that he has a good chance of being in power after the next election and does not want the opening years of his premiership to be dominated by a referendum that a Labour government would find harder to win than a Tory one. A public vote to leave the EU in 2017, against Miliband's wishes, would shatter his authority. 

Those who claim that his referendum stance will harm Labour's election chances are the same who claimed that Cameron's pledge last year would unite the Tories, reverse UKIP's advance and even overturn the opposition's poll lead. It achieved none of these - and Miliband is right to reject their representations. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad