The big story in UK news this morning is Ed Miliband’s statement of Labour’s position on an EU referendum. “Ed Miliband will dramatically pave way for in-out referendum on Europe if Labour come to power”, says the Mirror, while “Ed Miliband rules out EU referendum” is the Spectator’s take and the BBC goes with “Ed Miliband says Labour will not commit to EU referendum”. Ah, the media, bringing clarity as ever.
On this occasion, the right-wing magazine is closest to the truth. Miliband’s statement is about as unambiguous as Labour ever get on anything these days – “We strongly believe Britain’s future is in the EU, and my priorities for government after the next election are very different from those of the Conservatives” is pretty hard to misinterpret in the context of the Tories having expressly pledged a referendum long before their manifesto is published.
It is, in the language of politics, a “brave” move.
The New Statesman blogger George Eaton, who’s rapidly starting to be seen within the commentariat as the Labour leader’s unofficial spokesman, concurs with the Spectator’s analysis (our emphasis):
But crucially, he also makes it clear that he does not believe this condition will be met: “It is unlikely there will be any such proposal in the next parliament.” In other words, don’t expect a referendum under Labour.“
Eaton assesses the move as a wise one on the grounds that polling suggests EU membership is seen by voters as a low priority. But that rather depends on which polls you read, and on the dangerously flawed belief that in the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system all votes are created equal.
It’s true that the British public tends to put EU membership low on its priorities list when asked directly. But there’s an issue they DO rate very highly indeed.
Let’s be clear on this: there’s one reason and one reason alone for the popularity of UKIP south of the border, and it’s not because English people are in an all-consuming froth about regulation concerning how bendy bananas should be. The rest of the UK’s hostility towards the EU, and its support for Nigel Farage’s shambolic party, is almost entirely based around opposition to immigration.
And what that means in terms of Ed Miliband’s announcement is that UKIP supporters will now be faced with a very stark and unmistakeable choice in 2015. If they want an EU referendum – and pretty much by definition it’s the one thing they want above all else in the world – the only way they can make it happen is by making sure David Cameron remains Prime Minister.
Next year, UKIP voters – for all that many of them are full of a burning antipathy towards the Conservatives – will have to choose between voting against the Tories (and thereby risking letting Miliband sneak into 10 Downing Street) or holding their noses, voting tactically to keep Miliband out and bringing their heart’s desire within reach.
As we’ve noted before, if just half of UKIP’s support returns to the Conservatives when the chips are down, that’d already be enough to put the Tories ahead in almost every opinion poll of the last year, and Labour’s lead has been steadily declining over the same period to now roughly half what it was 12 months ago.
It seems unlikely that ruling out a referendum will win Labour many votes. (Who, or where, from?) And it might cost them crucial ones in exactly the sort of marginal Middle England constituencies where they need them most – the seats which carry such hugely disproportionate weight in the UK’s massively broken electoral system.
Today Ed Miliband put all his eggs into a single basket – one fashioned from the assumption that UKIP voters are too dim to realise any of the above. Perhaps he’s right. But in unequivocally telling them that the only way to get what they want is to make sure he isn’t the Prime Minister, it’s a very big gamble for little discernible gain.
And with the entire core message of the No campaign in Scotland being predicated on the fragile credibility of a Labour win at Westminster in 2015, that’s no small bet.