Peter Kellner imagines the case Ed Miliband could put
—30 March 2015, London. This morning, Labour held its ‘Clause V’ meeting to decide the content of the party’s general election manifesto. This is an extract of what Ed Miliband said.
‘The draft before you rejects the notion of holding a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Let me explain why.
‘First, it is bad politics. Yes, I know the polls show that most voters, including most Labour voters, think a referendum is a good idea. But YouGov research tells us two other things: that Europe comes low down on voters’ list of priorities; and they dislike politicians who, in their view, cynically say anything to win votes.
‘The conclusion is clear. Switching our policy now would lose us more votes than it gains. It would antagonise millions of pro-Europeans without winning over those who hate the EU – they will continue to back genuinely anti-EU Tory or United Kingdom Independence party candidates. As for the biggest group of voters – those who, as David Cameron put it so well back in 2006, do not like parties that “bang on” about Europe – a shift to backing a referendum would send the message that we are weak and opportunist, not strong and principled.
‘But the case against a referendum goes well beyond these electoral calculations. The Conservatives are in such a bad shape, and UKIP’s support remains so strong, that we could well win the election even if we shed votes by backing a referendum.
‘Let’s think through the consequences of that. Cameron will either resign the Tory leadership or be forced out. His party will almost certainly choose a Europhobic successor. Imagine how a midterm referendum would then play out. The chances are that we will be unpopular. Governments in midterm almost always are. Given the tough decisions we all know we must take, this time is likely to be no different.
‘A midterm referendum, then, would pitch an unpopular pro-EU government against a popular anti-EU opposition, or a resurgent UKIP, or both. As so often in referendums round the world, the main intention of millions of voters would be to kick the government, not really to answer the question on the ballot paper. As a result, Britain might leave the EU. That would be a disaster – for prosperity, jobs and our influence in the world. I am not prepared to risk that happening on my watch.
‘Ah, say some pro-referendum colleagues, there is one big advantage of an in-out referendum: if we obtain a clear “in” majority, the debate would be over for a generation.
‘That is wrong. Remember what happened last time. In the 1975 referendum Britain voted by two to one to stay in the then common market. Yet just six years later, Labour promised to pull Britain out if we returned to power. The issue was closed down only when we were thrashed in 1983 and Neil Kinnock ended our anti-European stance. By the same token, we would be mad to suppose that an “in” majority in 2017 would cause UKIP and Conservative Eurosceptics to pack up their tents and give up their fight.
‘Instead, we should simply tell the truth. The Tories are promising a referendum because they are weak and divided. They are risking Britain’s future in order to prevent being engulfed by civil war. Their offer to “trust the people” is bogus. After all, they never offered a referendum on policies to extend NHS waiting lists, reduce the top rate of income tax or punish poor families with their bedroom tax.
‘Let’s expose their true motives. Let’s show that ours is the party that stands on principle, promotes prosperity and is confident of Britain’s place in the world.’
Peter Kellner is president of YouGov
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