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How a Labour victory in 2015 makes the UK leaving the EU more likely

Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 14.44.20Two separate conversations in Brussels this week, both with Brits, but with people of very different political persuasions, led me to the odd conclusion summed up by the title of this blog entry – Britain leaving the EU is more likely if Labour wins the UK general election in 2015 than if the Tories win it. Here’s why.

What happens if, against the odds, the Tories win a majority in 2015? This will have been achieved with a nominally pro-EU leader (either Cameron or a successor, but even a successor would be bound by the coalition until 2015), and to have managed to succeed in 2015 will return optimism to a more moderate view of Conservatism. The party will have committed to an In-Out EU referendum in 2017, will make some minor renegotiations with Brussels, and the referendum result will keep Britain in. Most of the Labour Party, in any case weak due to an election defeat, will also be arguing to keep Britain in, with a coalition of lefty unions and UKIP arguing the case for out.

What about Labour? The danger here starts perhaps 6 months before the 2015 election. While Ed Miliband has an anti-referendum position now, if the polls remain reasonably close prior to the 2015 election, will Labour really resist calling for such a vote and matching the Conservatives? In the end Labour wants a return to power, and while the party is nominally pro-EU, most of the party just doesn’t care much about the European Union. Win an election, or stick to a position on an EU referendum is no contest – the former wins.

Then what happens? If the Tories lose the 2015 election then they will replace their leader (if it’s still Cameron until 2015), or if it is someone else and that person survives the response will be to move towards UKIP – look at what has happened since the Eastleigh by election. At best the Tories in opposition would be split on the EU issue, at worst they could even end up with the leadership being in favour of the UK leaving the EU.

Labour in government will be lumbered with an EU referendum it did not really want, and will not fight it with gusto. If the party was worried enough about the polls prior to 2015 to call such a referendum, it is not going to be in a strong position in government from 2015 onwards. Furthermore, referendums fought early in a parliamentary term tend to be more likely to go the way the governing party wants. The longer the wait, the more likely a perverse result.

To put it another way: a weak Labour government facing a referendum in 2017 or 2018, with the Tories being more hardline on EU matters than they are now would be the worst possible combination of circumstances to ensure the UK stays in the EU.

Now of course all of this must still be considered unlikely. No party might win an overal majority, and might have to work with the nominally more pro-EU Lib Dems. Labour might hold its nerve and not demand a referendum, or it might campaign with gusto on the issue. A compelling pro-EU campaign might keep the UK in the EU in any case. But a Labour victory in 2015, with a commitment to hold a referendum made before the election, increases the likelihood of the UK leaving the EU through carelessness.

Photo: "EU Flag + Gay UK" by stephen.spillane on October 23, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

4 Comments

  • Allan Mayhew |

    We’re leaving the European Union anyway – most people fed up / don’t understand what goes on in Brussels anyway.
    No way Frankfurt or Paris can replicate the City – just wander around Canary Wharf – Mrs Thatcher & Bob Hoskins in the long good Friday (1979 film about the coming development of Londons Docklands area) saw to that. No, we will replicate South East England success in services with manufacturing in Midlands/North & pay 50% of what we do now for access to Single Market.
    No we are not European – like the Russians really.
    Europe good to travel – like Ferris Wheel Vienna, those german sausages Zurich Bellevue tram stop – 7 francs a go but no more than that.

  • Allan Mayhew |

    They used to say you could smell the treacle in the East End when it was bombed in 1940 – I suppose the smell of barning, tar etc.
    No I have seen the distance the Russians went from the borders of East Prussia (konesburg/Kaliningrad) to Berlin from January 1945 to April 1945 (4 months – 4 months) – thats what bought peace to Europe not this barmy European Union.
    Having said that I might retire to Zurich – I go there for work quite a lot and really pretty with the clock towers and trams everywhere for 8.20CHF a day, those german sausages (you don’t have to have chips with them) are awesome and they all queue up like for a weekend treat. No don’t mind that and Dolder Hotel for afternoon tea. I know what you are going to say – Switzerland isn’t in the EU -but no pound for pound it is – pretty city.

  • Dan Sutton |

    I think you might have missed a stage in the process that leads up to the EU referendum. I think

    The current commitment from the Conservative is if they win the 2015 election, they will try to renegotiate the UK’s membership of the EU and if those negotiations are not acceptable they will hold a referendum. I think this gives the Conservative PM an option on holding the referendum or not. He or she can enter negotiations in 2015, declare them a success in 2016 and therefore cancel the referendum in 2017. Regardless of the actual negotiations or their outcome the PM can declare victory and move on. (Assuming that the EU and other Member States actually want the UK to remain in the EU and play ball by making at least a few cosmetic concessions.)

    If the Labour party match this commitment then they get the same option.

  • Ian Young |

    EU membership is not an issue for Labour and it hardly registers among supporters or the floating voters it needs to win the next election.
    The Tory obsession with the EU is about managing splits within its own party which Labour would be like if it had an endless debate on Clause 4. Banging on about Europe is a vote loser for the Tories and the question of EU membership would fall off the agenda under Labour.
    UKIP has little appeal for the under 40s and Euroscepticism only serious power base is among right wing tabloids who are facing terminal circualtion decline.

So, what do you think ?