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12 March 2014

Miliband’s EU referendum stance shows he is confident of election victory

The very fact that the Labour leader feels secure enough to affront Eurosceptics suggests he believes No.10 is within reach.

By Rafael Behr

Ed Miliband always seems to get there in the end. Labour now has a settled policy on an EU referendum: there will be one in the event of a treaty that transfers powers to Brussels. Otherwise there won’t.

It is a sign of how briskly hardline sceptics have set the pace of British debate on this subject that Miliband’s position is technically more enthusiastic about a plebiscite than the stance that David Cameron brought to government in 2010.

The “Sovereignty Act” passed by the coalition in 2011 envisages a vote on a specific treaty if ministers judge that it surrenders power. Labour’s offer upgrades that to a straight in/out vote. From a pro-European perspective that is a sensible adjustment. A vote on a specific treaty practically invites the public to express their distaste for the EU without confronting the risk of actually leaving the club. That makes a “no” much more likely. Pretty much the only way to get a “yes” in any European poll is to make it an all or nothing choice – and even then the odds are tight.

As George wrote earlier, the essential judgments that Miliband has made are, first, that most of Britain is not anywhere near as obsessed with the EU as the Conservative Party consistently proves itself to be and, second, that Labour’s position is only weakened by appearing to take policy dictation from Tory backbenchers via the dubious proxy of a weak-willed David Cameron.

Another important calculation is the aversion that many businesses have to the prospect of gambling with British EU membership (or trusting the people, as the sceptics prefer to see it). As one senior shadow cabinet minister put it to me recently, avoiding a vote on Europe is “pretty much the only Labour policy business likes.” Since Miliband’s relations with captains of capitalism are pretty shaky there is obvious merit in underlying the one big interest they have in common. Indeed, the CBI has come out in strong support of the new Labour position, which will be a source of great cheer in the party’s upper echelons.  

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The reaction from Tories and Ukip has been predictably intemperate. They each point to the essential unlikelihood of a referendum ever being held under Miliband’s plan and denounce this is a betrayal of the national will. Their problem is that those arguments resonate best among people who have long since decided they won’t be voting Labour. Meanwhile, efforts to sustain a prolonged argument on the subject risk looking quixotic at best, unhinged at worst when most voters’ concerns are elsewhere. Crucially, Labour’s position is now neatly aligned with the Lib Dem stance, enabling a two-against-one dynamic in the argument over who in this debate is reasonable and who are the fanatics. (It would be two-against-two if you count Ukip, but Farage’s party has to keep its distance from the Tories to sustain its own distinct anti-everyone-else identity.)

Above all, Miliband’s position has the virtue of being practical in the event that he ends up being Prime Minister. (He doesn’t want to squander his limited political capital in a battle to save Britain’s EU membership any more than Cameron does, but only the Tory leader has signed up to that torment.) The very fact that the Labour leader feels secure enough to affront Eurosceptics in the way has done today suggests increasing confidence on his part that No. 10 is within reach.

The political impact of formulating this new position on Europe is probably diminished by its agonisingly long gestation. Countless variants and different permutations of referendums on possible dates and different ways of declaring there will be no referendum have been debated in Miliband’s office (but notably never at shadow cabinet). But this is the Labour leader’s style. He ponders, he waits, he calculates the risk, he decides. It is an approach that tests the patience of his party and provokes sneers in the media. But it also disorients the Tories and has, on balance, proved quietly effective. Increasingly, Labour MPs can be heard admiring their leader’s timing and judgement. No one can be sure that his plan to reach Downing Street next May will come off. But it is getting progressively harder to deny that, in keeping with Miliband’s ponderous style, he really might get there in the end.