Miliband on in/out Europe referendum: I agree with Nick

by Stephen Tall on March 12, 2014

Ed Miliband has decided, once and for all, what Labour’s position is be on an in/out EU referendum – the same as the Lib Dem policy.

Writing in today’s Financial Times, the Labour leader has said his party’s manifesto will commit to a referendum on whether the UK should be in or out of the EU only if there is a proposed transfer of more powers from London to Brussels.

This is subtly different from the Government’s ‘treaty lock’ agreed within the Coalition Agreement: that promised there should be a referendum on any future treaty that proposed a transfer of powers, rather than a wider in/out referendum.

Labour’s new policy is, however, identical to the Lib Dem policy adopted at the party’s 2013 conference:

eu referendum lib dem policy

(Lib Dem policy motion F35, approved in Glasgow.)

Nothing wrong with that, of course. In fact, I think Ed Miliband’s decision is right and is the kind of decision which makes me think he might actually have what it takes to be Prime Minister.

First, very few people care that much about an EU referendum. Of course, the minority who do care truly, madly, deeply (mostly madly). But they are a small minority, as shown by Lord Ashcroft’s polling. It is, he found, “a sideshow for most voters”, with just 6% regarding it as “one of the most important issues” (hat-tip: George Eaton at The Staggers).

Secondly, by conceding a referendum now Ed Miliband would be boxing himself into a corner, forced to spend huge amounts of time and energy in his first two years as Prime Minister on an issue regarded by most as peripheral to the big issues facing the UK. Of course that does mean he will now face awkward interview questions that “he’s denying the British people their say” (though that is true of any issue on which we don’t hold a referendum). But he will regard that – rightly – as a small price to pay for not ending up tied up in knots after 2015.

Thirdly, there is the chance that a referendum could be lost. Here’s the scenario… Ed Miliband’s elected Prime Minister; David Cameron resigns; the new Tory leader, either out of principle or opportunism, campaigns for a No vote saying Labour’s cut a bad deal for the British voter; the right-wing media backs them up with a campaign of mass mis-information; the public votes for Britain to leave the EU. For what it’s worth, I think it’s more likely the public would vote to stay in the EU (the status quo usually prevails in referendums) but that scenario certainly isn’t impossible. It’s perfectly reasonable for Ed Miliband to say, “You know what? I don’t want to take that risk.” And if he does become Prime Minister his position will have been validated by a general election.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.