Citizen demand for a definitive say over where Britain's future lies – inside the EU club or outside of Brussels' control - is becoming more difficult for UK politicians to resist, according to the People's Pledge campaign group
The issue of a referendum on the United Kingdom's membership of the European Union is starting to move to the centre of the political stage because of different dynamics at play within both the major British political parties. Conservative Party leader and British Prime Minister David Cameron, having seen off the attempt late last year in parliament by backbench Tory and Labour MPs to force a referendum, was hoping the issue would quietly disappear.
This has proved impossible because of the Tories' current weakness in the opinion polls and the fear that UKIP will siphon off votes from the party in key marginals at the next general election. There is a real prospect that at the European parliamentary elections in 2014, the prime minister's party will come third behind Labour and UKIP. Not an ideal run-in to the next general election. On top of this, there is a growing frustration among ministers that there are numerous areas of policy that they cannot take action over because of EU law.
Cameron went to the recent Tory conference attempting to kick the referendum issue into the political long-grass by making a vague commitment to consult the public on the European issue at some point in the lifetime of the next parliament. He said that should he lead a majority government after 2015, he would then seek to negotiate powers back from Brussels. This new settlement would then be put to a referendum. What the PM left deliberately unstated was what the two options on the ballot paper would be. The implication most Tory activists and media commentators took away from Birmingham was that voters would have the chance to reject the deal and so take Britain out of the EU.
It took the pro-referendum Labour MP Natascha Engel to make Cameron reveal that his proposed referendum would not, after all, give voters the option of leaving the EU. In response to Engel's query at prime minister's questions on October 16 as to whether he would vote to stay in or quit the EU, Cameron said: "I don't want an in/out referendum because I'm not happy with us leaving the European Union, but I'm not happy with the status quo either. I think what the vast majority of this country wants is a new settlement with Europe and then that settlement being put to fresh consent. That's what will be going in our manifesto."
So, the options Cameron is proposing to give us will be either to accept the new deal or, if this is rejected, the implication is that whatever the legal EU status quo will be at the time will hold. All, it turns out, that Cameron is offering is an 'in-in' referendum. This will not be enough to satisfy most of the voters who want a say on the EU and those Tory voters flirting with supporting UKIP. Things are also beginning to hot up within Labour. In addition to long-standing, traditional EU-sceptics such as John Cryer, Kate Hoey and Graham Stringer - some from the more New Labour, pro-EU wing of the party are now beginning to come out for a referendum.
Former Europe minister Keith Vaz spoke at the People's Pledge congress in support of a new vote on EU membership late last year. Denis MacShane, perhaps the most vociferous of the pro-Europeans, and until now an inveterate opponent of what he has described as a 'plebiscite' on Europe - says: "Labour should offer a referendum after 2015 but make it clear we will campaign for Britain to stay in the EU." What's going on? The attraction for some on the pro-EU left is that were the referendum to be held within the next two years, their side would almost certainly win given the immense cross-party, business and trade union coalition the 'yes' side could put together. This would then close down the debate for at least a generation, as happened after the 1975 common market vote; and would legitimise Britain's membership of the EU.
In addition, were Ed Miliband to have the courage to go for it, as some suspect Jon Cruddas - the head of Labour's policy review is trying to persuade him to do - this would not only win the party some Tory votes but would cause havoc within the Conservative party. This is of course exactly what happened when Harold Wilson included a referendum promise in Labour's two 1974 election manifestos. Given that within the next three years there will be further treaty changes designed to give Brussels greater control over national economic policy in an attempt to rescue the euro, the idea that it will remain under those changed circumstances possible to be half-in and half-out of the EU will quickly evaporate. In that context, the public demand for a definitive say over where Britain's future lies will become more difficult to resist. And once the full scale of EU economic control becomes fully apparent, the result of a real in/out referendum might become a considerably closer affair than would be the case in the short-term.
Marc Glendening is political director at the People's Pledge campaign group, in the United Kingdom