Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 27th March 2014 – we republish it today to mark the Labour Party conference.
In setting ourselves the task of hunting down Ed Miliband’s opinions and policy positions, we took on a difficult job. On some policy areas, it can feel a little like Winnie the Pooh’s hunt for a heffalump or a woozle – everyone is pretty sure Labour policies must exist, but nobody’s ever seen one.
This week, I find myself returning to the question of Ed Miliband’s position on the EU. We touched on the topic a few weeks ago, as part of a wider piece about foreign policy:
“[Miliband is] havering over an EU referendum, too. Support for EU integration, and the contempt for the people required to hold such a position, is deeply embedded within the modern Labour Party. So far, they have continued to deny the people a say, on the dubious grounds that a referendum would be the source of disastrous uncertainty (an argument that could be followed to the logical conclusion of scrapping elections, but let’s not give them any ideas).”
“Even that opinion is hedged, though – Labour has refused to rule out a referendum at some point in the future. There’s no great ideological reason for that – it’s clearly just an option they intend to keep in their back pocket should it prove handy to get them out of a tight corner. Hence their decision to sink the Wharton Bill by underhand means, rather than to openly vote against it.”
Given his recent referendum speech, it seems only fair to revisit the subject.
So where does the opposition stand now?
The answer goes to the empty heart of Milibandism. His official position has changed, technically, but the reality of the situation is almost exactly the same as it was before – only the Labour leader could do so much energetic squirming and end up in the same place that he began.
He still supports EU membership, of course. How else could he get his green taxes, excessive red tape and open borders implemented, given the electorate’s opposition to all three?
He still opposes the Wharton Bill, which he and his whips sabotaged rather than do the honest thing and vote against it on record.
The shift in his view is on the question of whether a referendum might ever happen. Apparently convinced that doing so would help him to secure more votes he decided that Labour would agree to give the people a say.
Well, in theory.
Ok, in a speech but never in practice.
His supposed pledge goes something like this:
1) Ed Miliband wants reform to the EU – budgetary changes, a completed Single Market, more trade deals with other parts of the world, and an end to ever closer union.
2) He thinks we are more likely to get what we want if we never threaten to leave – a novel negotiation strategy which starts by confirming that if all our demands are rejected then we’ll just let everything carry on as it was.
3) It would be wrong to give the people a referendum on a renegotiation deal. After all, that creates “uncertainty”.
4) Instead, there should be an in/out referendum if powers are ever transferred to Brussels.
5) Don’t worry your heads about it, that circumstance won’t arise.
That’s cleared that up. A simple, five step roadmap to headscratching and puzzlement.
In essence, it is a “referendum pledge” that pledges no referendum, coherent with his budget response which failed to mention the budget. It’s a subatomic policy, in that it operates on a level at which the normal rules of causality and logic break down and cease to apply.
For a taste of the weird thought processes involved, consider the question of uncertainty. Miliband’s speech repeated his previous claim that uncertainty would be caused by a referendum to be held at a set date in 2017. In the next breath he proposed that instead an unspecified set of constitutional criteria should theoretically, but almost certainly not in practice, trigger a possible, but very unlikely, referendum at some point in the future. Apparently that wouldn’t involve any uncertainty at all.
Electorally, the speech failed to give him the new lease of life he sought. Headlines that Labour hoped would read “Miliband promises an EU referendum” instead read “Miliband: No EU referendum”.
Politically, it left him back where he started – he has travelled far, but in a circle. Despite his set-piece speech and his new policy, the quote at the start of this article still applies – Labour still unquestioningly support the EU, still harbour contempt for the people, still claim a referendum would damage the economy and still do not intend to give the people a say on the future of their own country.