By a Newsnet reporter
The Labour party is considering whether to call for an early referendum on UK membership of the European Union in a bid to wrong-foot the Conservatives, who this week supported a bill to hold a referendum within 2 years of the next General Election.
According to the Guardian newspaper, the Labour leadership is now considering whether to table an amendment to the bill to bring the referendum forward and hold it before the 2015 General Election.
The private member’s bill was put forward by Conservative back-benchers, who are eager to hold a referendum on EU membership. With the rise of the anti-EU Ukip south of the border, there is intense pressure on the Tories to stem the haemorrhage of their support to the right-wing populist party.
Amidst rising anger on his back-benches, Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to concede that the government would not oppose the private member’s bill, causing a rift with Coalition partners the Lib Dems. However both the Lib Dems and Labour abstained on the vote for the private member’s bill on Friday, which consequently passed its first reading by 304 votes to zero.
Some senior figures within Labour believe tabling an amendment to the bill to bring the referendum forward would create a severe embarrassment to Prime Minister David Cameron as he attempts to control his rebellious Euro-sceptic back-benchers. Labour has also lost votes to Ukip, and it is thought the move would help shore up Labour’s support in Northern England where Ukip has made gains at Labour’s expense.
The Guardian reports that there is currently “intense discussion” amongst Labour’s senior ranks about whether the party should change its current policy and press for an early referendum. The party currently opposes holding a referendum before the 2015 General Election. Labour must make a decision by November, when the bill is due to receive its second reading in the Westminster Parliament.
There is already open support for an in/out referendum on the EU amongst some prominent Labour backbenchers. Addressing the House of Commons during Friday’s debate on the referendum bill, Glasgow South West MP Ian Davidson described his party’s policy as being “in a state of flux” over the issue.
Mr Davidson said:
“It’s at present a caterpillar that in a short time will emerge as a butterfly. I believe that we will change our position in a relatively short period of time as events change themselves.”
Six Labour MPs, Roger Godsiff, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, Dennis Skinner, Graham Stringer and Gisela Stuart, defied the Labour whip’s instruction to abstain and voted in favour of the bill.
During Friday’s debate, Tory MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown asked Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander whether he could give an “absolute” assurance that Labour would not change its mind and press for an early ballot.
Responding, Mr Alexander said:
“We have maintained our position. Any judgment in relation to an in/out referendum has to be based on the national interest. Our judgment is that the national interest is not served by this bill and that is why we do not support it.”
Conservative minister William Hague mocked the apparent divisions within Labour – noting that Labour leader Ed Miliband has said he does not support a referendum while shadow chancellor Ed Balls has hinted that Labour might support one.
If Labour decides to press for an early EU referendum, the move would most likely attract the support of a significant number of Conservative back-benchers, and would stand a reasonable chance of passing.
The revised timetime would see a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU just months after the Scottish independence referendum, and would have a significant impact on the independence debate.