Ed Miliband will make an error this week when he prevents his MPs an open vote on an EU referendum. Polling data shows that the majority of voters want their say on EU membership. Also, recent political history should also impress upon the Labour leader that his party's credibility can hinge on their approach to European matters.
Some query how it is possible that an element of Labour support would be hostile towards EU membership. But it would be wrong to assume that Labour is a naturally pro-European party. It was the Labour left who were the most opposed to joining the European Economic Community in the early 1970s. It was also John Smith who ordered his backbenchers to abstain while John Major's Tories slugged it out over the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s. Even Gordon Brown and Ed Balls were both vociferously opposed to Britain entering the Euro single currency with the latter also hostile to Turkish entrance into the EU. And to this day at least 20 MPs on the left of the Labour Party maintain a sceptical stance towards the European Union. Thus, to equate Tony Blair's pro-Europeanism with the rest of the Labour Party would overlook the diverse opinions held within the party.
As well as Labour MPs, Labour voters are also split over whether or not EU membership has been a good thing for Britain. Actually, more Labour voters think it's been a negative aspect of UK governance than vice-versa with 57% wanting a reduced role for the EU, and only 33% happy with the current levels of integration. Polling also shows that UKIP have gained 900,000 votes since the General Election, and that disgruntled Tories are more likely to switch to UKIP than Labour by a rate of 60/40. Thus, there is electoral credibility to be earned in Labour backing the voters' demands for a referendum.
So why are Labour voters so negative towards the European Union? The truth is that there are a multitude of interconnected reasons related to the negative economic consequences of EU membership. Whilst it is understandable that concerns over Europe might be linked to the current unrest in the Euro zone, most voters still regard Euro woes as inconsequential to UK life. Likewise, it is true that concerns over immigration are certainly present, but it is more complicated than that. The fact is that EU competition laws make it harder to protect British businesses from takeovers. Thus, the dislocation of sovereignty is a genuine concern for those who now seek greater control over market forces.
Also, EU arrivals are much more flexible in their work patterns than UK workers who prefer more family orientated hours. This heightens a sense that foreign workers are more preferable because they are less assertive of their rights. The result of this is that the promise of 'British jobs for British workers' has become an impossible to fulfil. Voters perceive that further expansion of the EU, and in particular Turkey, would be a blow to British manufacturing who already struggle to compete with the advanced industrialised nation. In short, voters perceive Britain to be a net loser in the European Union.
Nevertheless, any referendum on EU membership would probably result in a vote to remain part of the Union. This is because voters are less aware of the positive legislative benefits to equality and workers' rights that have arisen out of Euro-membership, and an open debate would tease these out. Also, polling data has consistently shown that the closer voters come to affecting real change through referendum the less inclined they are to want it. But that is no reason why Labour should shirk a referendum on EU membership. Voters perceive that there is a gaping deficit at the heart of Labour's willingness to uphold the democratic accountability of EU institutions. The best way for Ed Miliband to settle underlying credibility issues over Europe is to have that referendum. By failing to so he is feeding the growing rise of UKIP.
Follow Eoin Barry Clarke on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TheGreenBenches