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Stuart Coster: Labour's retreat and muddle on the EU referendum bill

Screen shot 2013-07-02 at 16.09.03Stuart Coster is co-founder of the all-party EU referendum campaign The People's Pledge.  Follow the People's Pledge on Twitter.

The looming votes on James Wharton's Private Member's Bill for an EU referendum are likely to present the last opportunity ahead of the general election for MPs to put on record whether they support giving people a say on Britain's membership of the EU. The prospect is already stoking signs of collapse in the unpopular positions of the anti-referendum parties. 

A small but notable shift in Labour policy on an EU referendum was exposed recently when a leaked Labour document revealed not just that there would be no party whip when the EU Referendum Bill comes before Parliament next Friday, as is customary for private members' bills, but that "Labour will abstain on the Bill".

The briefing was smoked out by an "Email your MP" campaign launched by the People's Pledge just 48 hours beforehand, as Labour MPs then contacted party headquarters to ask how they should respond to questions from constituents about their voting intentions on July 5.

So when did Labour's policy on an EU referendum shift from opposition to abstention? Perhaps it was after MPs voted on John Baron MP's pro-referendum amendment to the Queen's Speech. The vote showed that, with full Conservative and DUP support, coupled with that of a few MPs from other parties, a future majority for an EU referendum could depend on just a handful of Labour MPs - many fewer than are known to support an EU referendum.

For an EU Referendum Bill to be closely carried due to the support of Labour backbenchers, even if Miliband turned out his party in full opposition, may have been seen as an embarrassment for the leadership best avoided.

Alternatively, with a definitive vote on the horizon, perhaps the shift is a more recent attempt by Miliband to bridge the rumoured deep divisions within the shadow cabinet between Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander and their respective pro- and anti-referendum colleagues. The party's policy review chief, Jon Cruddas MP, has also been identified as a referendum supporter.

Or maybe the Labour leader is heeding the growing support within his party for an EU vote, as exemplified by the recent launch of the Labour for a Referendum campaign - and not just the MPs it has signed up, but the grassroots work it is doing signing up councillors and party members.

Whatever the reason for Labour's shift to abstention on an EU referendum, it is hardly a lasting solution. The sight of a party leader backing away from putting the loyalty of colleagues to a parliamentary test over a Bill he simultaneously maintains is "quite wrong" must signal a policy at breaking point, overdue for change.  This situation has clearly not gone unnoticed in Labour HQ, as exposed by this weekend's revelations that the party is indeed actively considering a "range of options" to endorse an EU referendum, albeit without any renegotiation first.

But Ed Miliband isn't the only leader having to shift his EU referendum policy. In 2008, Nick Clegg came out in support of giving people a"real choice" of "a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union" - rejecting the "limited" one then proposed on the Lisbon Treaty. At the time, Ed Davey even stormed dramatically out of the Commons chamber because his proposed amendment for an In-Out EU vote was refused by the Speaker.

Having exhibited such apparent passion for such a referendum, people are rightly asking why the Lib Dem leadership won't stand by that position today.

Clegg now claims that "fundamental change" in Britain's relationship with the EU must again be proposed before he will support in-out EU vote. But why must we wait for the EU to propose such a change before we can decide on EU membership? Brutally, it's nonsense; a slippery political tactic designed to appear to support an EU referendum while simultaneously kicking it into the long-grass.

Neither has the Deputy PM explained what "fundamental change" actually means, leaving himself conspicious wriggle room to continue to block any EU referendum that's proposed. If David Cameron is successful in negotiating a 'new settlement' between Britain and Brussels, would that qualify, or not be "fundamental" enough?

It's lightweight stuff, which is no doubt why opinion polls have shown a huge split between Clegg's party and its voters on the issue. A new study of opinion poll data going back over the last year, published last week by the People's Pledge, reveals that at least half of Lib Dem voters - sometimes up to three quarters - support an EU referendum within the next few years. In contrast, typically a third of Lib Dem voters support Nick Clegg's position that a referendum is not justified in the foreseeable future.

And Nick Clegg makes a mistake if he thinks voters won't shift their support over the issue. Another poll conducted by ComRes for the People's Pledge ahead of the Corby by-election last year showed that 57% of Lib Dem voters would "seriously consider" voting for someone else if their party didn't support an in-out EU referendum. The Lib Dem candidate then came fourth after UKIP.

At a recent Deputy Prime Minister's Questions, under fire from Conservative backbenchers over his referendum flip-flopping, Nick Clegg admitted that the question of an EU vote was now more a matter of "when, not if". The increased scrutiny provoked by James Wharton's EU Referendum Bill seems at least to be forcing some acknowledgement that the deliberate vagueness of Lib Dem policy on an EU vote is at the limits of credibility.

While David Cameron may well wish to enjoy the benefits of aligning his party's policy with public opinion and the problems his support for an EU referendum is causing his rivals, he should perhaps not bask too comfortably in the glow of pro-referendum opinion. Conspicuous in the publication of James Wharton's Bill last week was the absence of any Labour sponsors, despite a few of the party's EU-critics being known to be willing.

If it emerges that Number 10 applied pressure to exclude Labour MPs from sponsoring the Bill and this had a decisive effect on its success in Parliament, the Prime Minister could see all his work to build bridges with referendum supporters quickly undone. The lack of Labour sponsors will already have deterred some pro-referendum Labour MPs from voting for the Bill. Trust between David Cameron and referendum supporters, nevermind eurosceptics, is already fragile. Few will feel able to forgive the Prime Minister if they come to suspect he has effectively scuppered the chances of an EU referendum being written into law over narrow party political games.


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