Should Labour offer a referendum on the EU?

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The EU question has never been far from earshot in the build up to and subsequent fallout from the recent European elections. Many might well be sick of the arguments by now, but they are likely to come back with a vengeance as the general election draws nearer.

The EU debate offers a chance for Labour to carve out a stance that separates them from the Conservatives as well as the Liberal Democrats. And if Labour were take a clear stance on the subject, it could also prove to be effective in taking on the UKIP threat. Certainly more so than smearing them, which seems to have been the tactic by the major parties – merely glance at the election results to see that it was far from successful in May.

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Labour could be the only party that do not offer an in-out referendum. It may seem like a risky decision. But over six in ten people are so apathetic when it comes to Europe that they did not vote in May – and so the chance of losing electoral support might appear worse than it really is. A YouGov poll in March 2014 showed that there a majority supported remaining in the EU (42% to 36%). In a similar poll in May 2013 44% of voters said they wanted a referendum before the next election. This latter statistic is arguably somewhat misleading. In actual fact, very few voters would make a decision in the general election based upon a promise of a referendum after. Even with their alleged bounce, and bearing in mind abstentions, UKIP could only convince a tenth of the British people to vote for them. In these days of an imperfect and limited economic recovery, the EU is not the majority’s red line issue.

It may then be a stronger position for Labour to simply say that they support being in the EU, and allow the anti EU vote to be split among UKIP and the Conservatives. After all, those that would base their vote in the general election on the EU referendum are likely to be those that are most passionate about leaving it, who are less likely to vote Labour anyway. Whereas, those who would vote to stay in the EU already have that situation, and those that wouldn’t vote, or didn’t vote in the EU elections will need to be won over by something else in any case.

Labour could also win over big business by taking a firm no referendum approach. The CBI announced that the majority of its members firmly support remaining in the EU. Therefore those in the CBI would be more inclined to support Labour, since they could guarantee staying in Europe by not having a referendum. This would shore up ‘Red Ed’s’ centrist credentials.

And recent data suggests this position would work internally too. The Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University has spent the past couple of months surveying over 400 Labour councillors in marginal constituencies ahead of the next election. This data shows that the decision not to offer a referendum would have the backing of over 60% of Labour councillors in this sample. According to the base, it seems the safest choice is not to offer a referendum at all, and to state that clearly, rather than fudging the issue. Taking a decisive stance could gain the pro-EU vote (thus nailing down those disaffected Lib Dems) and the undecided, those who are not sure but still do not want to leave. It would even pick up the business vote along the way.

Let the other parties fight with UKIP in the election over the EU issue. Ed Miliband should not let a party (UKIP) that do not actually have any MPs dictate the political discussion. Labour instead could focus on the issues that could get some of the 66%+ of the electorate  who did not vote in the EU elections, and thereby give them good reason to come out and a change of government at home.

Data from the study conducted by Anglia Ruskin Labour History Research Unit, and the analysis of it can be found here.

Josh Younespour is a history student at Anglia Ruskin University and Research Assistant at the Labour History Research Unit (LHRU). He writes in a personal capacity. 

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