Comment: Ukip’s triumph hasn’t brought an EU referendum any closer

By Stuart Coster

Of all the places to pick in which to make his 'election response' speech, billed as aiming to rebuild trust after recent mixed results for Labour at the polls, Ed Miliband chose the Essex town of Thurrock.

This is the constituency that, back in April 2012, voted 89% in support of an EU referendum when we in the People's Pledge kicked off our grassroots campaign for an in-out EU vote.

More than 30% of Thurrock voters took part in the postal ballot, administered independently by Electoral Reform Services, putting the consultation on a par with election turnouts.

So it was hardly an auspicious start to a bid to reconnect with disenchanted voters – certainly in this town, nor indeed nationally where polls show a significant majority want a say on EU membership – for Ed Miliband to rock up with the news that an EU referendum still isn't his priority.

When it comes to an election voters perceive matters, Ukip's appeal as a protest will undoubtedly be reduced. Further, EU critics tempted towards Ukip who recognise that securing a referendum is the only way to potentially change Britain's relationship with the EU will be torn away to a likely governing party that promises to deliver one. Recent polling by Lord Ashcroft suggests that, next year, at least a half of the recent Ukip vote could be up for grabs.

Labour was of course far from alone in feeling the squeeze in the past few weeks, but David Cameron at least has his referendum pledge to help bring a crucial number of those voters back into his fold.

The problem now for Ed Miliband is: what can he offer that stands a chance of attracting some of this disenchanted group back to Labour?

From the questions fired at Mr Miliband after Tuesday's speech, even senior local Labour figures can't understand why the party responsible for our original EEC referendum of nearly 40 years and five treaties ago won't also today commit to consulting people again.

John Kent, the ousted Labour leader of Thurrock council, told BBC Essex that the lack of a referendum pledge was a key mistake and a fellow Labour councillor stood up to tell Ed that he was repeatedly tackled about the issue on the doorstep, being asked 'Why will you not trust us?'.

In unfortunate contradiction to the stated purpose of the event, Ed gave all this the brush-off. Yet such sentiments also align with the views of the 28 Labour MPs so far on record as backing an EU vote. This list includes shadow Cabinet members Steve McCabe and Jon Cruddas, former Miliband frontbenchers Tom Harris, Tom Watson, Gerry Sutcliffe and Ian Austin, together with ex-ministers Keith Vaz, Andrew Smith and Frank Field.

Miliband's counter-stance – that an arbitrary wait is better than an 'arbitrary date' – is one that no doubt looked clever within the Westminster bubble. Outside, it just appears designed to dodge the concerns of a large majority by kicking an EU referendum into the long grass.

Many in Westminster also still fool themselves that the EU issue isn't influential in people's voting decisions, despite a referendum also clearly impacting on critical questions of trust. According to YouGov polling in March, voters in fact rank the EU as a more important issue than housing, transport, education, crime and tax.

Even more frustrating about Ed Miliband's refusal to back an EU vote is the lack of recognition of how it could solve his current problems. A referendum pledge could neutralise the immigration issue, liberate floating pro-referendum voters from backing the Conservatives next year and, most importantly, send the signal that Labour wants to hear people's views.

Having guaranteed an EU referendum, it's also hard to see why Labour need fear holding it. Ukip's 27.5% share of the vote even at such heights of hype ought to give pro-Europeans confidence that a referendum is eminently winnable for 'In'.

Yet, Ed Miliband seems intent on his terrible current strategy and, while David Cameron will be hoping his own pledge delivers, Nigel Farage also needs to choose his next steps carefully. For him there's a huge danger that he and Ukip could actually end up being remembered as the people who scuppered everyone's chance to vote on EU membership.

We will keep encouraging an opening of minds and a burgeoning trust among leading Labour figures, but alongside we are also building our records of where all parliamentary candidates stand on an EU referendum, particularly in key marginal seats. Our goal has always been to secure in the next parliament a cross-party majority of referendum supporters. Between now and May 2015 we will be making it clear to voters across the country which of their candidates for parliament trusts them to decide on Britain's EU membership.

Stuart Coster is co-founder of the People's Pledge campaign for an EU referendum. Follow the People's Pledge on Twitter at@PeoplesPledgeEU

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