Number five on my list of trends to watch this year was Britain’s attitudes to the EU. In 2011, opinion had swung towards Britain’s staying a member and I guessed the trend would continue as an EU vote became increasingly plausible.
What I didn’t realise was that I was writing at the moment when Britain’s love for Europe was at its peak. Since then, the proportion who say they’d vote to stay in the EU has dropped by a third:
This shift raises questions about Labour’s recent hints that it’s considering pledging an EU referendum.
The general view seems to be that Labour is bluffing to create problems for the Tories. The logic is that talk of an EU referendum hurts the Tories much more than it does Labour.
Keeping the issue in the news gives credibility to UKIP, unless the Tories make the same pledge. And if they did promise a referendum, the Tory leadership would have to say which way it would campaign – presumably for staying in the EU, which would put them on the other side from most of their base:
But though the issue may hurt the Tories more than Labour, the assumption remains that Labour’s suggestion can’t really be serious. A referendum campaign would be a huge distraction for a Labour government. Only a small proportion of the public consider Europe to be one of the top issues facing the country (6% at last count), so not to have a referendum wouldn’t cost a Labour government much.
Further, a no vote in a referendum would define how the government would be remembered by history. Assuming that the leadership wouldn’t actually want to withdraw, why take such a risk, with relatively little to gain?
But let’s consider why Labour might commit to a referendum.