It’s safe to bet that no historian will ever write in praise of Ed Miliband’s decisiveness. Just about the only thing he seems absolutely unequivocal about is his commitment to equivocation.
The latest fence the Labour leader has painfully straddled is on the question of an EU referendum. Pressure has been building within his own parliamentary party to give people a say, and Miliband has flirted in the press with the idea. Finally, today brings his great speech on the topic, and left wing democrats are likely to be disappointed.
The essence of his position is now as follows: Labour want to stay in the EU at any cost, they’ll give an in/out referendum if they judge a new “transfer of powers” to Brussels necessitates it, but that’s almost definitely not going to happen.
Having missed the opportunity to beat Cameron to the punch in promising a referendum, Miliband seemed to think this would be his chance to win headlines about giving the people a say. Instead, today’s coverage is almost universally about him essentially ruling a referendum out – even the FT, to whom he gave an exclusive opinion piece on the topic, took that line.
That’s because the position is as clear as mud, riven with inconsistencies and unanswered questions. Here are just a few of the issues with it:
1) What’s changed?
Last January, Ed Miliband was extremely clear that he did not believe the electorate should decide our relationship with the EU:
“Our position is no: we don’t want an in-out referendum..My position hasn’t changed.”
Back then, a referendum was supposedly a bad thing. Yet his speech gives no account or explanation of the shift in his position – have his views changed, or is this simply a fudge of convenience?
2) Didn’t Labour argue “uncertainty” is harmful to the UK economy?
As recently as last May, he was claiming that a referendum at a set time, 2017, was damaging to the recovery:
“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.”
Given that his new policy is that we might have a referendum at some unspecified point in the future, if he decides based on unstated criteria, but we probably won’t need to, does this not create far more “uncertainty” than a referendum on a set date?
3) Doesn’t this mean Ed Miliband will vote in favour of any proposed transfer of powers to the EU? Or does he now support vetoing EU treaties?
In his hypothetical referendum, Miliband would ask the people to vote in or out when a new proposal comes forward to send powers to Brussels. He is clear in his speech that he would vote to stay in, regardless of the circumstances. In effect, this would mean that he would support any proposed power transfer – any.
The alternative is that he would be willing to veto treaties when they are negotiated at EU level. That’s no bad thing – David Cameron did it a couple of years ago. Back then, some character called Ed Miliband said in doing so the Prime Minister had “given up our seat at the top table”. Is Miliband abandoning that line, too, or is he willing to back more transfers of power?
4) What kind of “transfer of powers” will qualify for a referendum?
Miliband totally fails to specify what kind of transfer of powers would trip his new trigger. He could have said treaty change would cause a referendum, but he didn’t – leaving acres of wriggle room to avoid giving the people a say.
5) Is he willing to renegotiate our relationship with the EU? Would he hold a referendum on any new treaty?
In one section of his speech, Ed Miliband said the following:
“I am clear that under Labour, Britain will not be part of an inexorable drive to an ever closer union.”
It’s a significant turn of phrase. “Ever closer union” is the fundamental principle of the EU – written into every treaty since its creation, it guarantees an eternal flow of more powers to Brussels. David Cameron specified it as one of the things he wanted to end in his Bloomberg speech last year.
For Miliband to stop “ever closer union” he would need to fully renegotiate the treaties in which it is entrenched. Is that something he’s really willing to do, given his criticism of the idea of renegotiation over the last year? If he did do it, would he put the outcome of the renegotiation to a referendum? Either he’s essentially committing to support Cameron’s position, or his commitment is not so “clear” after all.
There’s one more question arising from Miliband’s latest fudge, but it’s for Nigel Farage: What now, Nigel?
Ever since the Conservatives promised an in/out referendum, the pressure has been on the UKIP leader to explain why any eurosceptic should back his party, helping Labour into Downing Street and effectively helping to defeat the best chance of leaving the EU.
His stock response has always been that Miliband would pledge a referendum in the next parliament, too, so putting Labour into power wouldn’t matter. It’s even his justification for standing UKIP candidates against committed Better Off Out MPs like Shipley’s Philip Davies.
Except now Labour hasn’t done as he predicted. It’s clear from today’s speech that the Opposition have no intention of giving the people a say on our membership of the EU – and that the only way to get one is to vote for a Conservative Government in 2015. If Farage really wants us to leave the EU, what will he do to make that Conservative victory more, instead of less, likely?