With Cameron lurching from sceptic to “statesman” on the issue of Europe, struggling to remain relevant on the European stage from an increasingly isolated seat, there is rumour, counter rumour and counter-counter rumour with regards to Labour’s position on the fabled In/Out referendum.
Since Mark Pritchard fired the starting pistol, Cameron has raced into the unenviable position that John Major found himself in during the opening months of 1995: a party heavily divided on the issue of the UK’s relationship with the European Union. Tabloid after tabloid are now falling over themselves to encourage Ed to fill the political gap left by Cameron’s vague statement that was purely designed to dampen the growing internal fire.
This gives Ed a bit of a conundrum: should he commit the party to an In/Out referendum? Europe is not phone-hacking, it isn’t banking reform and it isn’t competition law in the media. Where Ed has led admirably on these issues, Europe is a different kettle of fish quotas. As a movement fundamentally composed of social democrats, the goals (or ‘ends’) of the Labour Party are broadly agreeable to most of its members. This is not to say there isn’t debate within the party, but this debate primarily focuses on our methods (or ‘means’) to deliver them.
With Europe, the debate has moved in such a way that membership of the EU has become an end in itself. This makes it a unique issue. While membership of the EU is still arguably a means to deliver on trade, crime reduction and multilateral cooperation on international issues, UKIP and the Tory backbenchers have also made it an ‘end’. Because members will disagree with the idea that the EU is the right means to deliver on the above issues and more, we may find that we begin to realise that members of the party are aiming for different notional ends.
As we have seen with the Tories, once this happens, the divisions in a party never heal and are kept bubbling just a fraction below a fragile surface.
It is a very difficult position for Ed to be in. It is unlikely that a bad decision here would lead disruptive factions as seen on the other side of the chamber and it is even more unlikely that it would prompt another ‘Gang of Four’ because after all, Ed is not likely to commit to membership or withdrawal from the EU – just to an opportunity for the electorate to decide. The combustible nature of this unique issue means both Cameron and Ed have to tread delicately; albeit Cameron is on a very fine tightrope and Ed has more room to take this issue and run. If Ed truly believes that an In/Out referendum is the right course to take and can muster broad support from the PLP, the membership, no matter how reluctantly, will follow – indeed, there will be some members who actively support this policy. If, however, Ed does not believe in a referendum yet endorses one to politically outflank the right of the Tories, he is taking a big gamble for what would be short term gain. After all to gain from this electorally he will have to keep this issue high on the political agenda up until May 2015. If it is a purely political move that is motivated by Machiavelli’s prince that is an awful long time for the policy – and Ed’s position – to be under scrutiny. With an issue as volatile as membership of the EU, almost three years of defending a policy in which he does not truly believe could create divisions within the party and undermine his leadership.
Douglas Alexander wrote a very eloquent summary of Labour’s position in the Guardian on Sunday evening. He argues that Labour should not commit to a position until the Eurozone crisis has settled. He argues that while there is crisis, the institutions of the EU are likely to evolve. Committing to a referendum now would be opening a debate on an issue that is not entirely clear. This would be a foolhardy strategy on such a politically sensitive issue and further reinforces the idea that Ed should express caution.
It is not for any member to second guess Ed’s position on this, but it must be carefully considered. He needs to believe that it is the right move, not just one that will give him an unsustainable bounce in the opinion polls. As soon as a referendum is committed to, the debate on membership will begin and rumble until the polls close. When we already have a 10 point lead, is a few more percentage points worth prompting an internal debate on this most volatile of issues?