Huffington Post 12 March 2014
Alea iacta est. In a move of remarkable political courage Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader, will fight the 2015 election as well as the May 2014 European election opposed to Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise of an In-Out referendum in 2017.
If Mr Miliband becomes the Prime Minister he says, in contrast to Mr Cameron, his administration will not seek to spend its first two years seeking to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe and then submitting the outcome of any such renegotiation to a defining referendum in 2017.
The issue and the dividing line between Mr Miliband and Mr Cameron could not be more clear. If voters consider a referendum to be a sine qua non for Britain in 2017 they have a choice of voting Conservative even if that entails a risk of a vote to leave the EU. If, on the other hand, they do not consider a vote on staying in or quitting Europe to be a defining priority for the nation they can so decide by electing a majority of Labour MPs.
Labour has sensibly sought to qualify its rejection of a 2017 In-Out referendum by stating that if there is a major new EU Treaty with the possibility of new powers going from national governments to Brussels then Labour would indeed support a referendum.
This hint at a possible referendum allows Labour some cover. In fact, it is already in British legislation as one of the measures the Coalition government enacted is a law that stipulates there must be a referendum if there is any significant transfer of powers from the UK to the EU.
So Labour is simply saying that it will implement that legislation though its spokespersons are seeking to present this as a specific qualifying pledge to soften what it is the core decision – namely to fight the 2015 election on a platform rejecting the Conservative promise of in-Out referendum in 2017.
As with his denunciation of Rupert Murdoch over phone-hacking in 2011, Mr Miliband is boldly and bravely breaking the rules of Westminster such as they have operated over the last quarter of a century.
Rule Number 1 was always crawl to off-shore newspaper proprietors, especially Rupert Murdoch, who had prime ministers and those who wanted to enter Downing Street at his beck and call.
Rule Number 2 was always to mock and be scornful of the EU and insist on the need for massive reform while promising referendums to show that populist passions would be assuaged.
Tony Blair promised referendums on the two most important EU related issues that faced his Labour government. First, he pledged a referendum on entering the Euro. It was that decision that meant the UK could never join the single currency.
Second he pledged a referendum in 2004 on the EU Constitutional Treaty in order to get through the 2004 European Parliament election and the 2005 general election by giving voters a referendum.
Blair’s referendum promise on the EU Constitution forced Jacques Chirac’s hand who had to match the pledge and allowed the French socialists to indulge in a little populism as key socialist leaders suddenly discovered the virtues of plebiscite democracy and joined with French Eurosceptics to vote down the constitution in 2005.
The conventional wisdom at least amongst many political commentators is that Labour can never afford to be out-referendumed by the Conservatives and it would be foolhardy to confront voters and tell them they cannot have a referendum vote on staying in or leaving the European Union.
Mr Miliband has been braver than Tony Blair in saying a referendum is not what Britain needs. The next 14 months will prove whether his courage will be rewarded.
Some signs suggest it might be. The latest YouGov opinion poll on Europe shows a narrow majority in favour of staying in. In addition, the shine may be finally coming off Nigel Farage and his UKIP party. A number of newspapers, notably The Times, have exposed just how rotten and financially dubious the whole UKIP operation is. While Mr Farage remains England’s Alex Salmond – a brilliant populist communicator – one can sense that as with Senator Joe McCarthy’s ranting about communism in the 1950s, people may finally be turning off and tuning out of Nigel Farage’s ranting about Europe sixty years later.
Two influential commentators, Dan Hodges for the Daily Telegraph and Alex Massive for the Spectator, main sources of anti-EU cheerleading in the press, have denounced UKIP as ‘racist, extremist and xenophobe.’ The Tories would like to reduce UKIP to nugatory influence while still picking up their anti-EU voters.
A great deal of UKIP support is white working class voters unhappy with the loss of jobs, income, and social guarantees. They blames this on globalization and especially immigrant workers arriving to ‘take’ proletarian jobs from the indigenous British as well as crowding into low-cost housing and send their children to working class district schools.
Mr Cameron and UKIP have made Europe’s free movement of workers principle which has brought a large number of non-UK workers to Britain a cause of great political concern with language denouncing immigrant workers even if, as Mehdi Hassan, and serious economists point out, their net contribution to public finances as well as to economic growth is important.
Mr Cameron sought to channel that anti-immigrant feeling into dislike of EU liberalism on free movement which he suggested could be solved by negotiations to limit European migration and then validated in a 2017 referendum.
Now every Labour MP and Labour candidate will have to tell voters there will be no 2017 referendum and therefore if a Labour government wanted to control movement of European citizens into the UK it has little bargaining power, backed up by the threat of a referendum, to force any change in policy.
Again this is brave and bold politics but will it be rewarded?
Finally, how do the Lib Dems respond? Vincent Cable has been loud in denouncing the 2017 Cameron In-Out referendum. Nick Clegg also has opposed it, though in earlier times, notably on the EU Constitution, the LibDems were the party of plebiscites.
If Clegg comes out in support of Ed Miliband, we can see a clear line-up for 2015 with Tory-UKIP candidates being for a 2017 EU referendum and Lab-LibDem candidates being against.
Miliband’s brave announcement is the result of considerable internal debate in the highest reaches of Labour’s ruling circles. It has not been approved by party members, MPs as a whole, or the party conference. It may come under pressure from those who either sincerely believe that a referendum on Europe 40 years after the first one is needed or are just nervous politically at the idea of the Tories being the pro-referendum party and Labour being the anti-referendum party.
If Mr Cameron stays as Prime Minister next year Brexit becomes more not less likely. Now those opposed to Brexit have a choice and should vote Mr Miliband into power. The politics of Europe are going to define and determine the fate of Britain’s national leadership.