Late last year, the Financial Times printed an article suggesting that Labour party figures were coming under pressure from politicians in Europe to spell out their position on an EU referendum.
Really we shouldn’t be surprised that confusion over the party’s stance on giving the British people a vote has spread overseas. This is one of the defining issues of the day. Some weeks there are very positive noises and then other weeks, such as happened in late December, someone like Tony Blair’s former Political Director John McTernan will emerge and tell the country that Labour won’t ever offer a referendum.
Having a say on Europe is something that a lot of people feel very strongly about (more on this later) and, if the volume of emails, tweets and arguments that get directed towards both me and Labour for a Referendum are any clue, the void in our EU policy is upsetting our domestic supporters as well as those on the continent.
It was in this atmosphere of uncertainty that Labour for a Referendum launched last summer, committed to raising the issue of, and support for, an EU referendum within the party. As a coalition of those who want to leave and stay in, we were surprised and delighted by the levels of support we received from MPs, peers, councillors and party members, and we believe we set off a debate within the party that continues today. In recent months, the likes of Keith Vaz, Kate Hoey, Owen Jones and Richard Wilson have been joined by Austin Mitchell, Tom Watson and Lord Prescott, raising the status of the issue even further.
I know some Labour Party people are wary of this campaign. They argue that the party needs to focus on core issues – the cost of living crisis that Ed Miliband skilfully identified in the summer and has stuck Cameron on the back foot ever since, the energy bill freeze, the bedroom tax, payday loans.
However I would argue that a prospective future government must be able to confront the big issues of the day, and Europe falls squarely within this bracket. Those who like to point to the issues tracker that places the EU down on the list of voters’ concerns, ought to recognise that the issues that place above it – immigration, economy, even taxation – are all affected, if not determined, by the EU. An EU referendum is also universally popular – with large majorities of, notably, Labour voters backing the call for a vote. And, as the Chairman of the People’s Pledge, I can tell you that we received huge levels of support from those on the Left when we held referenda on holding an in/out vote in seats around the country.
There are now just four months until the EU elections. Allied with the local elections, this should be a vote that the Labour Party is looking to win outright. We can’t just cede victory to Ukip with a resigned shrug because we have been too scared to take a stance on an EU referendum.
The Labour for a Referendum campaign is gearing up. Will you help me make the case, and help our party win in 2014 and 2015?
John Mills is a Labour Party donor and Chairman of the Labour for a Referendum campaign