Would Labour be mad to promise an EU referendum?

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.

There are tempting electoral reasons to follow this path. The discomfort for the Tories of having to publicly discuss the EU has been proven in the past. A commitment to a referendum combined with a bold pro-EU campaign would challenge the belief that Labour doesn’t have clear policies and could be part of a new narrative of re-opening British politics and society (combined perhaps with primaries for candidates).

Crucially, a referendum should be entirely winnable, despite this year’s polls. As I’ve pointed out, opinion has shifted radically during previous referenda in the UK, including the 1975 EEC vote and last year’s AV poll.

It’s also plausible that opinion on the EU is not now at a normal level, but rather is unusually low because of the crisis in Europe. By the time a referendum came, Europe would probably look very different: it’s hard to see how it could carry on as it is for much longer. If it got much worse there might not be anything to hold a referendum about.

Despite all this, I still struggle to see Labour benefiting from pledging a vote. To do so would mean going into the general election with the offer “if you hate the EU, vote or us, and then when we’re elected we’ll campaign to stay in”.

Even with the potential for Labour to use the pledge as part of a demonstration of renewed vigour and fresh thinking, and the good chances of winning a vote, the risks surely outweigh the benefits. But given the tactical gains for Labour of keeping the story in the news, I expect it to smoulder for some time.