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Why Ed Miliband Is Wrong to Rule Out EU Referendum

12/05/2013 22:14 BST | Updated 12/07/2013 10:12 BST

It's not been a great few weeks for those of us who support Britain staying in the EU.

Ukip has secured its strongest ever vote at the local elections and the list of those calling for withdrawal has expanded to include such luminaries as Nigel Lawson, Michael Portillo and TV favourite Des Lynam. With appearances on Daybreak and Question Time, Nigel Farage has rarely been off our screens, and when he isn't being interviewed he's being discussed. Of course, he has reason to be cheerful, not only is Ukip doing well, but the latest polls show a growing number of the public want to pull out now and more worryingly only one third who actually want to stay.

To this backdrop the political class has responded with by retreating into their comfort zones. Much of the Tory rhetoric has become increasingly eurosceptic; the grandees are advocating withdrawal, some are demanding a referendum in this parliament and the presumptive leader-in-waiting, Boris Johnson, has polished up his sceptic credentials by suggesting the Britain should be 'prepared to pull out'. He was subsequently joined by education minister Michael Gove and defence secretary Philip Hammond who both indicated that they would be happy to see Britain pulling out.

In contrast Labour has chosen to strengthen its opposition to a vote even taking place, with Ed Miliband telling the Progress conference "It is wrong now to commit to an in/out referendum and have four years of uncertainty and a 'closed for business' sign above our country." This move may be welcomed by many party members, but it will do little to win over a distrusting public.

The main reason is simple, Britain is meant to be a representative democracy.

There is a substantial demand for a referendum, and has been for some time. In fact you would be hard-pushed to find any other issue in which there has been such a consistent gulf between public opinion and the political class. Support for a referendum is far higher than either support for the Labour Party or the government. A recent survey found almost two thirds support a vote, including 43% of Labour supporters, and it seems both short-sighted and undemocratic to say that all of these people are wrong.

One of the main reasons why so many want a vote is because the EU has changed so much since its founding, with the direction of travel being towards more power and greater expansion. Regardless of what we think of the current settlement, it's definitely not what people voted for in 1975, and in the current economic climate it's only going to change more. If we know that there is change on the way then public support is essential and so is a fresh seal of consent.

If the will of the electorate and the principles of representative democracy were not reason enough then there also is an obvious party-political reason for backing it too. Europe is already creating its usual tensions in the Tory ranks and it presents 'red Ed' with a golden opportunity for political mischief. Some 86% of Tory voters support a referendum, with 46% supporting withdrawal. The parliamentary party is similarly split, with over 100 MPs set to criticise the government for not mentioning the referendum in the Queen's speech.

From a party political perspective Miliband should be riding on a glorious crest of a wave and cheerfully reminding a grateful electorate that the Labour Party is the 'people's party' and it is prepared to entrust them with such a momentous decision. However, in opposing a vote he risks snatching defeat from the jaws of electoral victory by giving David Cameron the greatest political gift of all, the gift of party unity.

In sticking to steadfast opposition Miliband won't necessarily look strong and defiant, to many he will look weak and scared. Many will, quite understandably, assume that the only reason he opposes a referendum is because people might vote to leave. One of the principles of democracy is surely that if a majority want something then it should happen, however there is actually no reason to believe that peole would vote to leave. Polls may show an opposition to the EU in its current form, but they also point to an even greater desire for reform, with a majority of Britons supporting membership of a 'reformed' EU and only 25% supporting withdrawal regardless. However, with the left having taken a step back from the debate it means that almost all of the discourse about what kind of reform is needed is being shaped by the eurosceptic right alone.

Ultimately a referendum is about legitimacy. It is about allowing the public to have their say on an increasingly important issue. There have been votes on mayors that no-one wanted, an AV system with little public support and a parliament for the North East that few cared about, is the EU really less important than these issues? Furthermore, now that the Tories have promised a vote the genie is out the lamp/the cat has been thrown among the pigeons (insert further metaphors at will) and Labour is on the back foot. The Tories can quite rightfully point out that Labour doesn't trust the public, and that's not a credible position for any party to hold in the build up to a general election. In contrast, if Miliband was to come out in support of a vote then he would be in a position to infulence the debate. Labour should be aiming to reframe it along progressive lines and engage the electorate in a serious conversation about the kind of Europe they want and Britain's role in it.