Speculation on Labour’s position on an EU referendum has been building for a while. It all started with the arch pro-European, Peter Mandelson, who unexpectedly said on May 3:
I believe a fresh referendum will be necessary because the political parties cannot reconcile their own differences and come to a final conclusion on their own, and nor should they.
He was soon given further credence by the shadow chancellor Ed Balls, who said:
That might be an issue whose time comes.
Although he added: “I don’t think that time is now.”
Two weeks later, Ed Miliband shuffled his top team and placed Jon Cruddas, who has previously called for an in/out vote, in the role of policy chief. That appointment triggered further speculation, which was distilled in an Observer piece on May 19 headlined Ed Miliband set for decision on Europe referendum:
The Observer has been told that, after discussions with shadow cabinet members, Miliband is leaving the door open to a referendum.
Since then, the Labour leader has failed to answer the question decisively: do you support an in/out referendum on Europe? Well today, he pretty much did. Giving a speech on Englishness at the Royal Festival Hall, he was asked that question directly. He answered:
Our position has not changed since six months ago. We didn’t think it was the right time to be doing that given all that was happening.
Asked why he didn’t support a referendum, Miliband answered:
The priority in the eurozone is to sort out the problems of the eurozone. At this moment the idea that Britain would now embark on a referendum on getting out of Europe… The priority has got to be getting out of these problems… we needs to concentrate on jobs and growth at home, and they need to concentrate on jobs and growth in the eurozone as well.
This is very close to the government line: we might support a referendum in the future, but definitely not now. No party wants to rule out having a referendum ever; there is still the possibility of a massive power grab by Brussels that would make a UK vote inevitable. But for now Miliband has resisted the calls from his own party to outflank the Tories by getting ahead of them and calling for an immediate referendum.
PS – I’ve been asked by @harvardjames whether the Labour leader ruled out any other type of referendum (perhaps one on whether powers should be repatriated?). I don’t think this is a serious suggestion – all parties know that once one referendum is granted, it will become inevitable that the final in/out question will have to be asked sooner rather than later. The current debate is very much about in/out – anything else is a smokescreen.