One likely consequence of the European elections in May will be to reopen the debate over whether Labour should commit to holding an EU referendum at some point after 2015. Despite consistently criticising David Cameron’s pledge, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander have been careful not to rule out the possibility of eventually matching it. A few months ago, several MPs told me that the party could come out in favour of a referendum after the elections as evidence that it had “listened and learned” to UKIP supporters (not least if Nigel Farage’s party wins).
But based on more recent conversations with Labour sources, the odds are now solidly against such a pledge. One senior strategist told me that he “does not expect” the party to go into the European elections with one stance on a referendum and into the general election with another. Instead, he said, Labour would highlight the uncertainty over Cameron’s referendum pledge, such as the absence of a realistic renegotation plan, and remind voters that he has a record of broken promises in this area. The party will also do “much more” to outline its new stance on immigration, the key driver of support for UKIP.
Separately, one shadow cabinet minister told me that Miliband was “instinctively opposed” to a referendum whenever the issue was discussed. This is not least because he recognises that he has a good chance of being in power after the next election and does not want the opening years of his premiership to be dominated by an unpredictable vote. A public decision to leave the EU in 2017, against Miliband’s wishes, would badly damage his authority.
Cameron’s charge that Labour is unwilling to “trust the people” is one that some in Labour 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 some Conservatives hope.
As polling by Ipsos MORI regularly shows, the EU does not even make it into the top ten of voters’ concerns. Lord Ashcroft’s recent study of Tory-leaning voters found that an EU referendum is “a sideshow” for most of them. He noted: “A surprising number of those we spoke to did not realise it was even on the agenda, and were nonplussed when they found out it was. Those for whom it is important know all about it (though they sometimes doubt it will come to pass even if the Tories win). But to make it a major theme of the campaign would be to miss the chance to talk about things that matter more to more people.” 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.
Far from being a clever ruse to enhance the party’s standing, a Labour pledge would shift the debate back onto Tory territory and allow Cameron to claim that a “weak” Miliband is dancing to his tune. As the Labour leader himself said when James Wharton’s EU referendum bill was being debated in the Commons: “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.”
Miliband and Alexander have long made a coherent case against a referendum. As Tory MPs continue to disregard warnings from Ashcroft and others not to “bang on” about Europe, they should hold their nerve.