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17 August 2013updated 27 Sep 2015 5:33am

It’s Tom Watson’s attack on Labour’s EU referendum policy that should really worry Miliband

The former election co-ordinator's call for an early EU referendum highlights the danger of Labour replicating Tory divisions over Europe.

By George Eaton

Ed Miliband rarely goes a day at the moment without some damaging intervention from a Labour figure. With the party holding off on all policy announcements until next month’s conference, the vacuum has been filled by malcontents from past and present. The latest example is Tom Watson’s interview in today’s Guardian. The party’s former campaign co-ordinator reminds us that the row over Falkirk remains unresolved, declaring that “a huge injustice has been done” to Karie Murphy, his former office manager and Unite’s candidate of choice in the constituency. He adds: “When they finally complete this inquiry they will find out that she hasn’t done anything wrong.”

But more harmful than Watson’s comments on Falkirk (which are merely a reiteration of his long-standing position) are those on Labour’s EU referendum policy. No longer bound by collective responsibility, he calls for the party to support an early referendum next May (becoming the most senior figure in the party to do so) and criticises it for allowing the Tories to set the terms of debate. He warns: “Cameron has set the agenda on Europe; he wants a referendum, and if we don’t engage with that debate then it won’t be on our terms. So I would argue for a referendum next May – get it out the way before the election. That should be Labour’s position. Yes to a referendum, and yes to remaining part of Europe.”

His stance echoes that of shadow work and pensions minister Ian Austin, who broke ranks last month to call for an in/out EU referendum on the same day as next year’s European elections: “[T]he truth is that the UK needs to decide and I would prefer it to do so more quickly. I know this isn’t Labour Party policy but my view is that we should have a referendum next year on the same day as the European elections.”

Coming out in support of an early referendum is one option that is under regular discussion within the shadow cabinet. It would have the advantage of getting Labour off the hook while also splitting the Tories down the middle. But if and when Miliband makes his move, it will have to be at a time of his choosing. It was the panic with which Cameron agreed to bring forward the draft referendum bill that allowed Labour to frame him as a weak leader who had lost control of his party. If Miliband is to avoid the same fate, he must seek to prevent more interventions like Watson’s. A process by which Labour MPs drag Miliband towards a referendum and he eventually capitulates would be a political gift for the Tories.

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