EU flags float in Lille, northern France, on April 18, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's opposition to an EU referendum is its trump card with business

Large companies are increasingly troubled by the threat of EU withdrawal under the Tories.
 

The one moment of spontaneous applause during Ed Miliband's speech to business leaders today came when he declared: "I am absolutely convinced that our future lies in the EU". Further applause followed as he reaffirmed his opposition to an arbitrary in/out referendum (Miliband would only hold one in the unlikely event of a further transfer of powers to Brussels) and said "it is not the priority for the country".

The EU is the one issue on which Labour has an unambiguous advantage over the Tories with business. Indeed, it is precisely this that troubles Len McCluskey (whose union has voted in favour of a referendum). He said yesterday: "As things stand, Labour won't [call for a referendum] because ducking this question is seen as part of Labour's commitment to business. That is a vast hostage to fortune. I would not like to be Ed Miliband explaining why he is not joining other parties in offering the British people a vote on something that is clearly a growing source of public concern."

Many large companies are far more worried by the threat of withdrawal than they are by Miliband's proposed energy price freeze or the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate. Martin Sorrell recently revealed that he and others had told David 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. 

It is a point that Ed Balls, who has been troubled by the party's lack of industry support, is particularly keen to make.  Having working hard to ensure that Labour did not rule out a referendum in all circumstances, he has swung firmly behind Miliband's position. After telling Newsnight that it would be "silly" to avoid a vote at all costs (a comment which was mistakenly thought to refer to a referendum at any time), he added: "We are not proposing a referendum now because we think to spend two or three years blighting investment and undermining our economy on the prospect of a referendum which David Cameron says he is going to have after he gets an unknown package of refoms would be bad for jobs and investment".

Labour figures privately concede that they are still unlikely to win the support of  a single FTSE 100 boss at the election, but the increasing possibility that the UK would leave the EU under the Tories may complicate the picture. It is, however, a price that Cameron is undoubtedly willing to pay. As has become ever clearer since his speech last year, had he not promised a referendum, he would likely now no longer be leader of the Conservative Party.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.