Why Labour Will Offer an EU Referendum
I have written in The Independent on Sunday today about why Ed Miliband will come round to promising an “in or out” referendum at the next election.
I didn’t have the space to get into the question of timing in much detail. If Ed Miliband supported an in-out referendum now, it might happen before the election. The Labour Party combined with the Eurosceptic half of the Tory party would have a majority in the House of Commons.
That was why Rafael Behr wrote last week about how much chaos and division Miliband could sow in Tory ranks if he were to support a referendum. Behr was writing about the debate among Ed Miliband’s advisers over Labour’s attitude to the EU Referendum Bill, the Private Member’s Bill tabled by new Tory MP James Wharton, which will be debated on 5 July.
He suggests a Labour amendment to provide for a referendum next year rather than in 2017, which could presumably be given opposition time to assist its passage through Parliament.
There is no doubt it would be a problem for David Cameron. Ultimately, I think the only way he could block a Bill would be to make it an issue of confidence, which would mean forcing Tory rebels to choose between an early referendum or an early election.
But Behr’s attempt to set out how Miliband would explain his U-turn reveals why it is unlikely:
Cameron is the hostage of his party’s right wing … Everyone agrees on the need for EU reform but it requires diplomacy, while we have a prime minister who can only stumble blindly after Ukip and towards the exit. Sadly, then, the case for ending uncertainty now demands prompter resolution of the basic question: does Britain want European co-operation or not? In or out?
No, I don’t think it works either. It would look unprincipled. That is why I think Miliband is edging cautiously towards promising a referendum in the next parliament rather than trying to force one before the election. Not that this is what he yet intends. I think that he wants to keep his options open, but that he will find himself forced by the electoral logic to take it, between six months and a year from the election.
By then he can make a long-range argument that sounds more principled. He can say that our relationship with the eurozone is changing; that once it is clear that the euro has sorted itself out and the currency will survive, and once a Labour government has secured important reforms to blah, then we should have a referendum to affirm our membership of this new-look thing.
If Labour won the election, or formed a government with the “when not if” Lib Dems, he would then want to hold a referendum rather earlier than Cameron’s planned 2017, because he would want to do it before the question became too tied up in how much everyone hated the Labour government. But that is a subsidiary decision. The first thing is to maximise the Labour vote in the election, and that means being in favour of “giving the people a say”.
Photograph: The last time Ed Miliband fought a referendumTagged in: ed miliband, eu referendum, euroscepticism
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