After some fine filibustering by Labour MPs, debate on Conservative MP James Wharton’s EU referendum bill (which would enshrine in law his party’s pledge to hold a vote by the end of 2017) has been adjourned until 22 November. The most notable intervention today came from Ed Miliband, who told broadcasters: “I think what we see today 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.”
What is striking is the confidence with which he dismissed the Tories’ referendum antics. Having defined the debate through his proposed energy price freeze and his focus on living standards, he speaks from a position of strength. The case for Labour to pledge to hold an in/out EU referendum (discussed by Rafael in his column this week), most likely before 2017, is becoming weaker every day. Once viewed as a clever ruse to split the Conservatives (something that Adam Afriyie’s amendment notably failed to do), it would now shift the debate back onto Tory territory and allow David Cameron to claim that a “weak” Miliband is dancing to his tune.
Despite this, some Labour figures privately suggest the party could reverse its stance following next year’s European elections as evidence that it has “listened and learned”. Cameron’s charge that Labour is unwilling to “trust the people” is one they fear will haunt them 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 election in the way that many Conservatives hope. As polling by Ipsos MORI regularly shows, the EU does not even make it into the top ten of voters’ concerns. 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.
All of this is before we consider the disruptive effect that a post-2015 referendum would have on Miliband’s governing agenda and the danger of an ‘out’ vote (something that a Labour government would find harder to avoid than a Conservative one). Miliband and Douglas Alexander have long made a coherent case against a referendum. As the Tories continue to flout wise warnings not to “bang on” about Europe, they should hold their nerve.