by Anthony Bonneville
Europe remains the Tories’ Achilles heel. Polling conducted by YouGov for Labour Uncut reveals that 1 in 5 2010 Tory voters have defected, with 60% switching to UKIP.
These figures will worry an already jittery Conservative party. No matter what David Cameron seems to do, no matter how much he genuflects before the altar of Euroscepticism, it’s never enough. Core support keeps leaching out to the right.
As I’ve set out in my chapter in Labour Uncut’s recent book, “Labour’s manifesto uncut: how to win in 2015 and why,” this peculiar spectacle presents an enormous opportunity for Labour.
On Tuesday evening, the night before David Cameron gives his leader’s speech, Ed Miliband should set aside his widely aired reservations and announce that Labour now backs a straight in/out EU referendum for May 7th 2015.
Such an intervention would transform the political landscape. All that has happened so far this parliament would be rendered instantly irrelevant.
On the pro-European side, a broad coalition would be assembled bringing together unions, business organisations and civil society groups, a true example of One Nation politics. Labour and Lib Dems would stand united on the most important issue of the next general election.
It would force quiet pro-Europeans (distant cousins of the quiet bat people) to come out and say it loud: “We need to stay in Europe!”
For Labour, which has had a difficult recent relationship with business, this would be a rare chance to redraw the dividing lines of political debate.
Labour would be the party standing with business. The Tories would be left making the difficult case that business people did not know what was good for their own firms. For those who recall the damage done to Labour’s 2010 election campaign by the letter from businessmen criticising the party’s national insurance policy, the irony would be rich.
On the anti-side would be most of the Tory party, but critically not the prime minister. The united voice of business, not to mention the views of the civil service and other world leaders, mean David Cameron would be loathe to commit to exit.
The result would be a Tory election car crash of unprecedented proportions. Think about it: in the heat of a general election contest, David Cameron would be campaigning against his own party on the defining issue of the day.
The Tory backbenches are already fractious. Over 100 backbenchers have voted against three line whips on a range of issues including privatisation of the forests Lords reform and, of course, Europe.
With clear sight of a referendum on May 7th 2015, all discipline within the Tory party would break down as the anti-European ideologues threw themselves into campaigning for an exit.
The next election will be fought on essentially conservative (with a small ‘c) terrain. The economy is likely to be recovering and the contest will be around who can best nurture the seedlings to bloom.
In this context, the idea of taking a huge gamble on leaving the EU with unforeseen consequences begins to seem suicidal.
Referendums are essentially conservative affairs. Those making the case for change generally face the more difficult challenge. Their opponents, meanwhile, will be busy conveying the risks of any move from the status quo.
As popular as Nigel Farage might be as an anti-politics caricature, can he really command the kind of trust needed from the wider electorate to win the case for exit?
The experience of the Yes to AV campaign is indicative of the shift that occurs when the notional becomes a real choice. Their large poll leads evaporated, turning into a crushing loss.
And the EU exit camp barely even have a lead in the polling today. If the pattern seen during the AV referendum is repeated, the scale of defeat for the anti-camp would settle the European question for a generation.
For all the worthy talk from Labour about the need not to promote uncertainty by talking about a potential future referendum, the political reality is that a referendum at some point is inevitable. David Cameron is looking to 2017, partially as a measure to buy time ahead of the next election from his rebellious backbenchers.
Labour’s actual choice on this issue is whether to follow and start campaigning when the referendum is called or to lead by committing to a referendum with an earlier date.
There are obviously risks inherent in such an approach. However, given the state of the polls and Labour’s position, maybe the time has come for a major play that resets the political clock.
It is almost certain there are the votes on the floor of the House of Commons to pass the necessary legislation – a majority of the Tory party, ministers included, would likely vote in favour.
Now is the time for political courage from Ed Miliband. Labour needs to lead on Europe.
A commitment to a referendum on the day of the next election would offer the party, and the country, that transformative leadership.
Anthony Bonneville works in investment banking. This is an abridged and updated version of Anthony’s chapter in “Labour’s manifesto uncut: how to win in 2015 and why