Acting leader Harriet Harman set out Labour’s policy U-turn ahead of talks due to take place today between European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and David Cameron at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence.
Mr Cameron’s pledge to hold the referendum is expected to form a key part of the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday.
The government will today state that people from most other EU nations living in the UK will not be able to vote, with only UK, Irish and Commonwealth citizens eligible.
The EU Referendum Bill is to be introduced to Parliament on Thursday, stating the electorate will be based on the general election franchise rather than that used for Holyrood elections that allowed EU citizens resident in the country to vote.
Ms Harman said yesterday that Labour will now support the planned referendum bill, in stark contrast with the position adopted by former leader Ed Miliband who ruled out the prospect of holding a vote on the issue ahead of losing the general election earlier this month.
Ms Harman said: “There just does not seem to be the public appetite for us to man the barricades against a referendum that appears inevitably going to happen.
“We will vote for the bill and then get into the big questions for and against Europe.”
Warning that the referendum should not coincide with other elections scheduled to take place, such as those in Scotland and Wales next May, she added: “It’s a big constitutional issue on its own and it needs that separate consideration.”
The SNP has also said that a referendum on the UK’s EU membership should not clash with the next Scottish Parliament election on 5 May next year. Angus Robertson, SNP Westminster leader, seized on Labour’s U-turn to renew his party’s call for separate votes on the EU in each constituent part of the UK and to underline the Nationalists’ opposition to the vote.
Mr Robertson warned that a failure to allow each constituent part of the UK to decide on its status in the EU would leave Mr Cameron’s independence referendum vow to give Scotland an equal voice “in tatters”.
Mr Robertson, said: “We will also seek to amend the legislation to ensure no constituent part of the UK can be taken out of the EU against its will. If Cameron continues to refuse to accept this democratic protection, his independence referendum vow that Scotland is to have an equal voice will be in tatters.”
Business Secretary Sajid Javid said a “straightforward in-out referendum” would be held before the end of 2017, but did not indicate a timetable for the vote.
He said the SNP will also seek to ensure 16 and 17-year-olds are allowed to vote in the EU membership referendum.
“Young people are our future,” he said. “It is their UK, and their Europe, so they must have their say. Sixteen and 17-year-olds can pay taxes, get married and join the armed forces, so it is only right and fair that they should also be entitled to vote.” Ms Harman said the UK would just be a “small country” outside the EU, but admitted that she shared some of Mr Cameron’s concerns about the need for change.
She said: “I think that we have got the same concerns that you should contribute into the benefits system before you take out.
“We have got additional concerns about making sure there is not underpayment of the minimum wage and that there is a living wage so that people don’t feel undercut in their workplace in terms of pay.”
Stressing the economic and political importance of remaining in the EU, she said: “If we were outside Europe we would be a small country, outside of those big, continental building blocks round the globe.”
She added: “It is not inconsistent to say that our future is better in Europe than outside of Europe, but we want to see Europe change not only for this country but because all around Europe they have got to address the question of people feeling that Europe is too centralised insufficiently accountable and insufficiently in touch. So it’s perfectly possible to want to remain in a situation but to want it to change.”
Nigel Farage, leader of anti-EU party Ukip, said Labour had “been dragged, unwillingly” to accept an in-out referendum on Europe after its electoral defeat on 7 May.
Mr Farage said: “They grudgingly accept that it is the will of the British people to have a say on their future, but they make it clear that they will campaign for in, whatever the result of Mr Cameron’s negotiations.
“So in reality this isn’t a conversion to democracy and the facts of the European argument, merely an acceptance of the inevitable. Claims that the EU has kept the peace for 70 years, and that Britain would be in some way barred from trade with the EU nations, rebels against all evidence. But they have closed their minds and hearts to evidence.”
Shadow Europe minister Pat McFadden said he “can’t see circumstances where [Labour] would recommend a no vote”.
Mr McFadden said: “I don’t think the European Union necessarily always works best by always threatening to leave. We’ve achieved change by working with others, the Prime Minister is going to have to get some agreement from others to some of the changes that he wants so let’s see what he comes up with.
“But he too has some issues here because in terms of the programme that he’s set out so far, there is nothing that he could renegotiate that would satisfy a good number of his backbenchers who want to come out come what may.”
Paul Kenny, general secretary of the Labour-supporting GMB union, warned the party not to sign up to Conservative plans which he said would damage workers’ rights.
He said: “On the EU renegotiations and the referendum, Labour must not give Cameron a blank cheque and should beware of the CBI agenda to turn the clock back on employment rights. Labour are sleepwalking into a two-step Europe, with UK workers having the worst rights in the EU.”