Labour's referendum u-turn is looking ever more likely

Many opposition MPs are persuaded by the case for making a virtue of necessity: resolve the issue and expose Tory divisions.

One consequence of Labour’s great frothy row over trade union influence is that yesterday’s parliamentary parade of Europhobia was bumped down the news agenda.

The vote on the first reading of a private member’s bill calling for an in/out referendum on EU membership was numerically if not politically rather dramatic. It was carried by 304 votes to nil. That means there will be another reading. So the charade gets to be played through another round. These bills become law extremely rarely and this one in particular proposes legislating for something that would happen after the next election, thereby binding a future parliament, which is constitutionally impossible.

The real point of the exercise is to give Conservative MPs the chance to boast to their constituents that they voted for a referendum in parliament and that Labour didn’t. This, it is hoped, will reinforce the message that the only way to get a say in whether Britain stays in the EU or not is to vote Tory. A vote for Ukip, say anxious Conservatives, is a de facto vote for Ed Miliband. Tory MPs report that this line is proving effective in their local associations. The threat of letting in Labour is the standard way to put a stop to harangues about Europe, gay marriage and all the other things that local Tory members harangue their MPs about.

So some Tories might be disappointed that their legislative stunt was poorly reported yesterday. (Although they won’t be sorry it was bumped in order to make way for lavish reporting of Labour disarray.) Besides, the spectacle of hundreds of Tories packing one side of the Commons chamber while the other one was entirely empty did reinforce the impression that this is a peculiar Tory obsession rather than a moment of great national significance. The mood around parliament in the run-up to the vote felt, in Tory quarters, like the anticipation of a stag party – lots of very hearty, cheery men all feeling immensely bullish and chummy in shared anti-Brussels spirit. If the Conservatives bottled that scent and released it to a wider audience I suspect it would not act as an electoral aphrodisiac.

Meanwhile, many Tories are wondering why Labour has not matched their referendum pledge. Just as many presume they will, and wonder when. (I’ve dealt with the question of whether they should and why they don’t want to here and here.) My sense of the mood in the opposition ranks is that the referendum u-turn has become inevitable. It is still possible to find Labour MPs who vigorously hate the idea, but fewer and fewer think it can be avoided. For that reason, the balance of power is shifting towards those who say the best thing to do is try to divide the Tories by calling for an in/out vote this side of a general election. Then, if it happens, Cameron – who ultimately wants to preserve EU membership – will campaign on the opposite side to many of his members, which could be problematic for party unity.

If Labour did go for that gambit they would certainly have support among hard core eurosceptic Tories. I spoke to one fairly moderate (but sometimes rebellious) Conservative recently who said quite casually that the Eurosceptics would “bank” yesterday’s vote and come back for more. Their plan too is to try to bring the referendum date forward.

Meanwhile, one idea floating around the Labour side is to aim for a referendum on the same day as the 2015 general election. The appeal here is that you get a higher turnout of what one advocate of the plan calls “normal, sensible people” which raises the chances of an “in” vote. And, of course, the Tories have to fight a general election campaign while splitting down the middle on a referendum campaign. Not that the decision is Labour’s to make, but as a plan it has the double virtues of clarity and strategic guile – commodities that have seemed in short supply on the opposition front benches of late. Ed Miliband might be tempted to go for it just because it would get people talking about divisions on the Tory side again instead of his own fracturing party.

Waiting for the leader to make the call. Source: Getty

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

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.