THE POLITICS OF THE PLEBISCITE

PLMR

A few weeks ago I posted a series of predictions for the next two and a half years in politics.

Despite an outward display of confidence, I hadn’t expected to get everything right. All we can really ever do is look at raw data like polling, and come up with reasons why the numbers are likely to move one way or the other.

What I hadn’t expected, however, was for such long-term predictions to be proven wrong within a matter of weeks. I predicted that the two main parties would match each other on the issue of a referendum on Europe. I suspected that with the issue toxic for both parties (the Conservatives are split, the Labour Party largely on the wrong side of public opinion), both would seek to take it off the table with a commitment to a referendum after the next general election.

Instead, in his much anticipated speech on the subject, the Prime Minister promised the public a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU should the Conservatives win the next General Election, while the Leader of the Opposition explicitly opposed such a move in his subsequent exchange with Cameron in the Commons.

Some immediate reaction to last week’s PMQs was that Miliband may have made a gaffe in being so clear in opposing a referendum after 2015. The way it came out was certainly bizarre – it’s certainly an unusual situation to announce a new position. Labour will say that they have always opposed a referendum, but they had not, until then, been so explicit in opposing one in principle, preferring to stick to the “now’s not the time to discuss it” line – choosing to maximise wiggle-room on the issue before committing one way or the other in the run up to the election.

So how bad is this for Labour? The Conservatives have seen a bump in the post-speech polls, although Labour’s numbers have remained steady, with most of the bump coming from UKIP. To avoid making the same mistake as last time, I’ll leave out the predictions, and stick with a list of “things to think about”:

Bad for Ed, good for Dave

  • Most people might not care about the complexities of EU membership, but they do care about politicians listening to them and giving them a say. If the 2015 electoral battleground becomes “who trusts us enough to give us a referendum?” rather than “is the EU good or bad?”, this is bad for Labour. If Labour doesn’t back down on its opposition, expect the Conservatives to hammer this home. It could bring back memories of the Gordon Brown days – the election that never was, and no referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
  • Europhile Conservatives are almost extinct, so Cameron may just have done enough unite his party on the issue, at least until 2015, while Miliband may have split his.

Bad for Dave, good for Ed

  • This could help the Opposition. It’s just possible that contrary to my earlier thinking, the EU is more toxic for the Conservatives than Labour, and therefore it’s in Labour’s interest to have a different policy, thus keeping it on the table as a fundamental point of disagreement between the parties.
  • Why might the EU be more toxic for the Conservatives? It could be another branding issue – the public might agree with Conservative euroscepticism, but may not like the (“nasty party”) image of the party it reinforces.
  • It could also simply be that keeping the issue alive helps UKIP, which in turn hurts the Conservatives more than Labour. A few Con-UKIP switchers in 2015 could be the difference between a Conservative hold and a Labour gain in key marginals.
  • The new “decisive”, “strong-leader” perception of Cameron could be replaced by that of a flip-flopper if he refuses to unequivocally commit to supporting a “yes” vote at the referendum.

Why everybody should chill

  • Europe is still not an important issue for the electorate. The “big speech” has passed most people by.
  • Labour already supports a referendum on the terms of legislation passed by the Coalition – when a further transfer of power to Brussels is proposed.
  • There are plenty of senior Labour figures who are in favour of an in-out referendum after 2015, including the head of the party’s policy review, Jon Cruddas. Labour could change its mind, and say that to follow Cameron’s lead at the time would have been to endorse the timing, which they argue is crummy, because of the crummy economy.

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