12 Mar 2014

Ed Miliband, Europe and chaos

For some time now the gossip in EU circles has been that the greatest danger of the UK falling out of the EU came from a Labour government. They thought Ed Miliband was bumbling towards a commitment to an in/out referendum if he won the next election but doing so in the worst possible circumstances.

If he won, the Tories would’ve lost. The Tories could be led by an “outer” if the defeat was bad enough, failing that led by someone whose demands in a renegotiation would be so unrealistic they were effectively an “outer.” The “in” camp in a Labour-called referendum would not be a united front by the three main Westminster parties. And, critically, Ed Miliband would be calling a referendum without a renegotiation to wave at the voters. It would be, as one EU ambassador put it to me, “a referendum without a strategy”.

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Today that changes. Ed Miliband if elected PM would not call an in/out referendum in the next parliament.
He has covered his traces a bit with a commitment that whenever there is a concession of sovereignty to the EU by a British PM who had nodded off at the negotiating table and forgotten to veto, there will be an in/out referendum.  As he is rather bound to say, this would be “unlikely”.

In pure Labour power politics terms this is a victory for Douglas Alexander, his shadow foreign secretary. That in itself is enough to make some Labour folk spit blood. There has been resentment about Mr Alexander’s closeness to the leader and his role at the head of the election campaign. His critics have been suggesting he’s wrong, marginalised and not as central to the project as he thinks.

To go to the depths of all  these rivalries would take too long but it’s worth noting that we journalists (well, this one anyway), in our obsession with the Blair/Brown rivalry, failed to notice that the cleavages within the Brown camp by the time Gordon Brown inherited the throne were a decent match for bitterness and endurance.

The forces who wanted to pull Ed Miliband over to a commitment to an in/out referendum in the next parliament – Cameron minus the renegotiation –  were pretty formidable and are licking their wounds. They include Ed Balls, Michael Dugher, Andy Burnham, Lord (Stewart) Wood, Jon Cruddas and others.

Not all of them were late converts to the idea. Some had a more tactical approach, some more consistent. What the tacticians say  is that the party had to wake up to the fact that, as one Labour MP put it, “the next election is going to be the most chaotic ever … a referendum could make the difference. We can’t afford to give Ukip voters a reason to go back to Cameron”  and if he has a unique referendum offer “it makes it easier for the Tories to get back Ukip voters”.

Less than a year ago, some report that Ed Miliband was ready to press the button and sign up to an in/out referendum in the next parliament. He was pulled back by Mr Alexander. The support of his chief of staff, Tim Livesey, and the backroom pressure from Lord Mandelson, is thought to have been critical too.

One critic of the new stance said it showed Ed Miliband as the “great procrastinator” he’d always been accused of being pre-2010. Ed Miliband will argue that he’s been principled, stood up for the British interests, not just his party electoral interests. But the question that had been begged ever since David Cameron announced his referendum promise in January 2013 – will Labour follow suit? – has been answered, and we wait to see what, if any, are the electoral consequences.

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One reader comment

  1. Philip says:

    Hmmm….My impression of Ed Milliband is that he is a careful political calculator. That doesn’t mean he gets everything right, of course. Far from it. But my judgement is that he reckons that EUphobes (i.e. those whose desire to see the UK leave the EU is THE most important reason for voting) are largely, if not wholly, lost to Labour already. They are UKIP-fodder. Similarly, I doubt he believes he’s going to pick up many 2010 votes from the Tories. Where he expects to pick up votes in 2015 are long-term Labour voters who didn’t vote in 2010 (but have now seen what even a moderated Tory government is like) and the more left wing (middle class?) LibDem voters who are generally pro-EU but don’t like much of what the Lib Dems have done in Government. Under the first-past-the-post system, that might well be enough to give Labour a majority – especially if UKIP take a sizeable share of the Tory vote – or at least make them the majority party.
    Cameron’s approach is actually no more credible. Either he’ll get a Harold Wilson-style renegotiation, insignificant, but enough to claim he’s done well & the UK should remain in the EU, or he’ll get nothing….as most Member states have more important things to worry about – & several may welcome the overseas investment that could well be diverted from the UK if the UK leaves the EU. It’s a strategy that keeps requiring Eurosceptic statement to mollify his supporters & attempt to win back UKIP defectors, but in the EU it weakens the UK’s negotiating position…and forces us to focus on issues that are of minimal interest to the majority of EU member states.
    Cameron may think this is a gift to him (apparently he was smirking like mad all the time in Israel), but politically it may well be a lot more astute than he thinks. (And were the Sun, Times, Mail or Express ever going to support Milliband at the next election?)

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