The BCC wants an EU referendum a year earlier than the PM does. Photo: Getty
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The British Chambers of Commerce calls on government to bring forward the EU referendum to 2016

The director general of the BCC is urging politicians to call an EU referendum next year.

In the past week, political debate has been focused on business. Labour has been accused of being anti-enterprise as big business bosses have voiced their concerns about having Ed Miliband in No 10.

And as the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), a body that represents 92,000 businesses across Britain, holds its annual conference today, it seems to be landing another blow for Labour regarding business.

Its director general, John Longworth, will use his speech to the conference to argue for bringing the Tories' promised 2017 EU referendum forward to next year.

He will voice his concern that the EU membership debate has been "hijacked by political ideology", and told the BBC's Today programme this morning: 

We need to bring the referendum date forward because two-and-a half-years of uncertainty isn't good for growth and investment.

His argument is that a long period of uncertainty on the issue is damaging, so the sooner the country can vote in a referendum, the better. Longworth will voice his support for David Cameron's plan to thrash out a new deal for our relationship with the EU:

Chamber members fundamentally support the prime minister’s objective of Britain in a reformed Europe. The next government must set out what it will do to protect the United Kingdom against the prospect of being in a club where all the decisions are made by, and for, the Eurozone.

Longworth's comments spell bad news for Labour, as he is undermining the party's stance against calling an EU referendum altogether:

If Labour forms an administration the uncertainty would not be diminished, they would be under huge pressure to have a referendum . . . business people would always be mindful of the possibility that there could be a referendum at some time.

Although it's clear Longworth's motive is for Britain to remain in the EU, and to settle the issue as soon as possible, this has clearly failed to translate into support for Labour, the only main Westminster party that has not promised a referendum. This is in contrast to the message of last year's CBI conference in November, when its president Mike Rake told British business that the UK's EU membership is key to Britain's success:

Do not be fooled: by withdrawing from Europe we do not somehow become more open to trade elsewhere; instead we turn inwards, going against the grain of an increasingly connected world.

As well as making life difficult for Labour, which was treating its unique stance on the EU as its main trump card with business ahead of the election, it is also an awkward intervention for the Prime Minister.

David Cameron throughout this parliament has been under immense pressure from Tory backbenchers, particularly eurosceptics and those spooked by Ukip's popularity, to bring an EU referendum forward. There was a contingent of MPs who called for the referendum to be held in 2014, who felt the prospect of a 2017 vote (depending on a Tory win) was a cop-out from the PM. Now that a business case has been made for bringing it forward, such politicians will feel emboldened.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo:Getty
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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.