Labour has a lot to thank Jacques Delors for. Until his speech to the TUC in 1988, the issue of Europe had split the Labour Party just as severely as it had split the Tory Party since the Common Market was established. Little Englander Conservatism was matched by an equally visceral opposition on the Left to joining a “bosses’ club”. The depth of the division was revealed in the 1976 referendum, where both the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet split and campaigned on opposing sides in the vote.
Paradoxically, it was Margaret Thatcher who can claim credit for creating the circumstances for Labour unity. By pushing so forcefully for the single market – which has been hugely to Britain’s economic benefit – she created a counter-movement for social rights which led to the Social Chapter. This is what Delors, then president of the European Commission, pointed out to the TUC. With one speech the EU had become a bulwark against Thatcherism and the excesses of the market. There – with only a few outliers like the late Bob Crow – the labour movement has left it since then.
It is within the Tory Party that the issue of Europe has remained a running sore. Again, Baroness Thatcher can claim the credit. In her rhetoric she was a ferocious critic of the EU, but in her actions she was an integrationist. She left a legacy in which you could be proudly Thatcherite and equally strongly pro- or anti-Europe. In the end, it is the words not the actions over Europe that have shaped the modern Tory Party. Since the Maastricht Treaty, they have not stopped talking about Europe – and it has not won them a single vote.
The latest contortion is David Cameron’s contradictory position. He is a pro-European, but he wants a referendum. Though that vote can’t be held now. In theory, that is because he wants a re-negotiated deal to be put to the electorate. In reality, it is because he couldn’t get a vote through Parliament. Senior Commission officials are desperately searching around for some concessions that they can make to Cameron, but believe that all of his agenda can be delivered already within the existing treaties.
For Tory backwoodsmen, all this is beside the point. They are reminiscent of nothing so much as the Bennite Left – with the delicious irony that he too was a famous campaigner against the Common Market. These Tories are not satisfied with Cameron’s promise of a referendum. Increasingly, they are contemplating a complete break with the EU – a “Brexit”, or British exit.
Enter Ed Miliband, once again showing his cool head and strategic patience. When, last year, Cameron announced the 2017 EU vote, Miliband suffered a barrage of advice telling him to match the pledge and take it off the table. He demurred, and held his counsel. He has taken punishment for this – but only among the chatterati. And while he has been silent on the EU, the Tories have been unceasingly and unhealthily obsessed with it. Remember, this is a government that abstained on its own Queen’s Speech last year for fear of a Tory back-bench rebellion.
Judging the time to be right, this week Ed Miliband made his position clear. There will be no referendum. Or, contrariwise, there will be a referendum. All depending on which paper you read. Some call that confusion. I call it a result.
The truth is that there will be no referendum under a Miliband government. Why should there be? He believes in the EU and Britain’s continued membership. So do his party, and his voters. If being anti-EU floats your boat, you have long gone to the Tories, or – more likely – UKIP.
If there is to be an incoming Labour government, Miliband wants it to talk about inequality, the living wage, labour market reform, house-building, infrastructure, education, the NHS – anything except Europe.
With a radical programme of political change, the last thing Ed wants is the first two years hijacked by a debate about Europe in which he would have to tell the voters: “Sorry to bother you, but we’re already in the EU. And, yes, I want us to stay in the EU. Which, admittedly, we could do without a vote. But anyway, I just thought we should have one…” As a stirring call to arms, it’s not quite the Gettysburg Address, is it?
Is Miliband saying one thing to one group and something completely different to others? Technically, yes he is. In reality, he has made a conditions-based promise to hold an in/out vote on the EU in the full knowledge that those conditions will never be met. Commentators and strategists know he has taken the issue of the table. As do business leaders – who are mightily relieved, and who also needed a lollipop from Labour after Ed’s promise to hike the top rate of tax to 50p. As for voters, well he has avoided the trap of being painted as anti-democratic. When Cameron taunts that we’ll only get a referendum under the Tories, Miliband can argue that major treaty change will trigger one with Labour. Voters won’t mind at all when one doesn’t arise. Is he riding two horses at once? Yes. But as Harold Wilson said, if you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be in the circus.
Lord Ashcroft has wisely observed that Miliband has laid a trap for the Tories – and it is one into which they feel impelled to throw themselves. The temptation is for Tories to differentiate themselves with the referendum promise. The problem is that should be a narrow-cast message – aimed only at UKIP defectors. An electorate that hears Ed talking about real issues and Tories talking about the EU will warm to Labour.
This was a smart move by Miliband. It holds the wound open on the Tory side. It closes down an issue for him. The message will cut through, and any criticism of handling its delivery will be washed away by next week’s Budget.