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

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.

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28 Comments

  • The battle lines are drawn. It’s now clear that both Labour and Lib Dems don’t trust the people to have their say.

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

    So can anyone explain in what sense the Lib Dems are “the party of In”, and Labour isn’t?

  • Further to Chris’s point, what is the LIb Dem’s USP? It, for the last few months while Labour made up their minds, was being explicitly pro-Europe. What now?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 12th Mar '14 - 10:35am

    People are not being denied their say. As Stephen points out, if Labour, or Labour and Lib Dems between them secure a parliamentary majority, then the people will have had their say. If people want out, then they have the possibility of voting UKIP. We’ll see how that works out, shall we?

    Chris, Labour’s policy on a referendum is similar to ours. They aren’t great at shouting about the benefits of Europe, though, because they are just as divided on Europe as the Tories are. The issue isn’t quite as toxic for them, but they are still divided.

    Lib Dems as Party of IN stacks up as we are and always have been committed to a strong EU with the UK at the heart of it.

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

    Great, so we won’t be hearing LD MP’s criticising Ed Miliband & his policy on the EU then.

    If only…..

  • Caron

    So can you point to any significant figures in the Labour Party who are not in favour of membership of the EU?

  • Caron is right – it’s about willingness to talk about it and take on UKIP and other ‘outers’ – not just a formal policy position.

  • I have just heard Ed Miliband’s speech and he was quite unequivocal about the benefits of UK membership of the EU and his commitment to that. This must be unequivocally welcomed by the Lib Dem leadership and the criticism of Labour’s vacillation on the subject (justified up till now) toned down. There will be some rain on his parade as some of the Labour eurosceptics will now become vocal (Kate Hoey the first to break cover) but it looks like he will face them down.

    The Lib Dems are still clearly the clearest and most consistent supporters of UK membership. Our campaign as the party of “in” is still valid. However we must welcome the Labour support announced today rather than trying to find details to get iffy about.

  • “….it’s about willingness to talk about it”
    Willingness to talk about it is all well and good, but if it doesn’t culminate in a choice for the voter in the form of a referendum then, taliking about it is a pointless acedemic exercise, and as such I am right and Caron is wrong, when I say that voters ARE being denied their say. Labour and Lib Dems are democracy deniers. It couldn’t be clearer.

  • So, if a majority of the public want a vote but are denied can we mass outside Parliament with various missiles and throw out the government? If this is the will of the people then a precedent has recently been set.

  • Caron is right because people who feel really strongly about this can vote UKIP or Tory. I don’t bleat on about being denied a referendum about things I care strongly about (equal marriage, legalisation of soft drugs, reforming divorce laws, childcare) because I get it that we have a parliamentary democracy…..

  • Yes, Mark. Also we must be cognisant of the dangerous uncertainty for vitally important industry – notably motor manufacturing – created by the constant prospect of “Brexit” some years from now. Miliband has made it clear that this is one of the reasons behind today’s speech.

  • ( Deny ~ Refuse to give something requested or desired.)
    If Labour and Lib Dems are refusing a referendum, they are (denying), the voter their right to choose.
    Which bit of the above is incorrect ?
    And Anne expands the dangers inherent in denial, when she says :
    “So, if a majority of the public want a vote but are denied can we mass outside Parliament with various missiles and throw out the government? If this is the will of the people then a precedent has recently been set.”
    Is Anne right? Has Ukraine shown us the new template for democracy, whereby a paving stone and a bottle of petrol is the new (and only!) way, for a denied voter to get things done?

  • @John Dunn “If Labour and Lib Dems are refusing a referendum, they are (denying), the voter their right to choose”.

    No they aren’t. They are giving the voter a clear choice. Voters can treat the Euro elections as their IN/OUT referendum. The voters’ plain choice is between voting LibDem (IN), Labour (IN), Tory (IN/OUT, shake it all about) or UKIP (OUT).

  • We HAVE to gain the eastern European voters before Labour grab them. This is probably the calculation behind Labour not offering a referendum. I think we may just have missed our window of opportunity.

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/11/eastern-europeans-migrant-workers-vote-uk-elections

  • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 12th Mar '14 - 8:39pm

    @caron Lindsay

    “Chris, Labour’s policy on a referendum is similar to ours. They aren’t great at shouting about the benefits of Europe, though, because they are just as divided on Europe as the Tories are. ”

    And your evidence for this is? Nothing short of the same number of anti-European Labour back benchers as Tory back-benchers will do. All the names please.

    By the way, the slavish support for the Tories and vindictive antagonism towards labour that Nick Clegg exhibited at today’s PMQs only convinces grass roots Labour members such as myself that in the event of being forced to choose between going into coalition with the party of Clegg and cutting our own arms off, the latter course would be infinitely preferable

  • Chris Manners 12th Mar '14 - 9:15pm

    Labour is not remotely as divided as the Tories. Their rebels are the Campaign Group and a couple of serial mavericks. None of them would push their oppostion as far as a hundred Tories have.

    You run for office 5 years at a time. Labour have basically ruled a referendum out for that period. I don’t support a referendum. Are you seriously saying I should vote Lib Dem because they won’t hold a referendum beyond that period either?

  • It is irrelevant to oppose our Labour and Tory friendss on the EU referendum issue. There is not too much difference in our respective positions (be honest – there is not. None of us really wants a referendum; that much is true).

    The fly in the ointment is UKIP. UKIP is a new, somewhat passionate party, which takes a completely different view to the three “normal” parties.

    I am therefore gratified to see that Nick is getting excellent publicity in the press for challenging Nigel Farage to debate the EU. In fact, the Guardian is singing Nick’s praises and say Nick has a real opportunity here to swing voters across to our way of thinking.

    So, keep up the good work Nick; you have my unshakable support. You are doing an excellent job.

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/10/nick-clegg-v-nigel-farage-ukip-leader-lib-dem?commentpage=1

  • “In fact, the Guardian is singing Nick’s praises ”

    That’s got nothing to do with the Farage debate. The Guardian is a LibDem supporter & recommended voting LD in 2010 – the readers however are becoming increasingly fed up with the promotion of Clegg so I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Guardian advocate a vote for Labour in 2015.

  • MartinB, you can’t have read Theresa-1′s link. If you had, you might have seen a rather petulant rubbishing of Nick Clegg, as well as a prophecy of doom for the Liberal Democrats and victory for Farage and UKIP. Theresa-1 was clearly being sarcastic.

    There’s not much point to the opinion piece, however; Clegg may be personally unpopular, but he is a sound and experienced debater. Farage will play to his base, of course, but his ability to make his message seem reasonable to those outside it is questionable.

  • @MartinB An interesting take on the Guardians supposedly pro LD stance. They did indeed endorse the LD’s in 2010 but having done so, in my opinion they then ran with fierce criticism of The LD’s (which I don’t object to where appropriate), whilst soft soaping the Labour line,no matter how opportunistic and vacuous,
    Consequently I would be very surprised if they didn’t endorse Labour in 2015 as I suspect many LD supporters have, like myself, gone elsewhere.

  • peter tyzack 13th Mar '14 - 8:23am

    the point missed here is that Nick’s declaration that the LibDems are the only party of IN has forced Milly to at last be a bit more clear about his position. Pity that the media in general are so partisan that they cannot relate the full facts and reverted to the two party state position again.

  • “Just like he was on AV”

    Yes, he voted in favour of AV so what’s your point ? That he voted in favour of political reform that your party demanded ? What precisely is wrong with that ?

    The ‘Labour bad’ meme on here is childish & you’re going to have a huge egg on your faces if the electorate return a hung Parliament with Labour having the most seats & a coalition with the LibDems is your only hope of remaining in govt.

  • I am with Ian Sanderson in his observation on the right wing nature of much of what Labour has done whilst in power.

    Like him my first preference would be for a majority Liberal Democrat government.
    My second preference would be a minority Liberal Democrat!government.
    Before 2010 my third preference would have been for Labour and Conservative to go into coalition together and for Liberal Democrats to offer the alternative to the two establishment parties.
    Today I would go into coalition with any party other than the Tories, who have demonstrated over the last four years that they cannot be trusted to stick to a Coalition Agreement.

    Of course all such speculation is worthless before the Scotland Referendum. The number of Labour MPs from Scotland skews any discussion of what might happen after the next general election if Scotland opts for freedom.

  • What is childish about “Labour bad” on here is that certain individuals on the one hand blame Labour for Tory-lite things on the one hand, but equally are prepared to say that Labour are now “on the left” and that is bad. I would be quite happy to blame them for Tory-lite, and indeed have accused them of being timid over the years, but I think we would then have to praise Ed Miliband for moving even somewhat left of nuLabour. Or if you were a nuLab fan, then you could rationally accuse the current Labour leadership of “veering to the left”. I just find it strange that the economics of all three parties (and UKIP really) are so similar. Particularly when there are so many professional question marks over neoliberalism.

  • I wrote:
    “So can you point to any significant figures in the Labour Party who are not in favour of membership of the EU?”

    Is that question really so hard to answer, if people are going to make claims about Labour being just as divided as the Tories on Europe?

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