‘You only offer a referendum if you want to ratify your existing policy,’ a Tory veteran told me this morning while discussing Ed Miliband’s recent referendum announcement. The Tory illustrated his point with reference to the Major government’s row over a proposed referendum on the single currency. He said that the pro-European side of the argument ran from a referendum, fearing that the public would say ‘no’ to EMU. His logic was: there isn’t time to change minds during a referendum campaign, so the public backs the status quo.
Leaving aside the matter of whether or not this old Tory’s interpretation of those historical events is correct, his logic suggests that Miliband might have been quite shrewd yesterday, regardless of how complicated the Labour leader’s position appears.
There will be no In/Out referendum, Miliband says, unless there is another transfer of power to Brussels. But the calculation behind that offer – that the British will suffer the status quo but not another powergrab – is immaterial because Miliband says that such a powergrab is unlikely. A deeper referendum pledge (ie, beyond the existing ‘referendum lock’) might have made Europe a ‘doorstep issue’ for the party in 2015, exposing it to the splits that have dogged the Tories – see comments from the late Bob Crow and Kate Hoey for two very different strains of euroscepticsm within the Labour movement.
Miliband’s policy on Europe, then, is not to have a policy. After yesterday, only the European Union can make Europe an issue for Labour in 2015. Unless, of course, the bigger beasts on the Labour backbenches decide to follow the shining example of the Tories. No one would do that, surely?