Alex Massie

Ed Miliband adopts a rope-a-dope strategy on Europe

Ed Miliband adopts a rope-a-dope strategy on Europe
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Hopi Sen is not alone. There are many people in this country supremely indifferent to the whole and vexatious question of whether or not there should be a referendum on Britain's continued membership of the European Union.

Yes, yes, they will tell pollsters that if they must they suppose they might fancy having a referendum some day. But they don't really care. They mumble about a referendum because that seems the done thing to do and because when a pollster asks you if you'd like to have a say on something it sounds better to say Yes than No thanks, I really can't be bothered.

And sure, if pressed, they might grumble and chunter about the European Union too and say that it seems to be an unnecessarily invasive institution - or set of institutions, treaties and agreements. Judges may be mentioned. So might bananas and their curvature. All the familiar and favourite things.

But in the end, deep down, most people don't really care. Not very much anyway. A lot of noise is made by the people who really do care about Europe - many of them dizzyingly monomaniacal - and this impresses lots of folk at Westminster and in newspaper offices but their volume disguises the fact that the people who really, really care about the EU are a pretty small minority. And the number who work themselves into a popped-blood-vessel frenzy over the precise timing and nature of an In or Out referendum is even smaller. These people are not truly representative of the Silent Majority Who Don't Give Much of a Toss.

This should not surprise. Most subjects are minority enthusiasms. Relatively few people really care about education policy, for instance. People think, in general terms, that there should be schools and it would be good if they were good schools but so long as their own children appear to be getting a decent education most of them don't much care - not really - whether the kids from across town are receiving a proper education. And if you don't have school age children the chances you care about education policy - I mean really care - diminish still further.

Even immigration and 'race relations' which is the great 'hot button' issue of our time is a minority concern. Approximately 30% of people tell pollsters it's one of the gravest and most pressing issues facing the United Kingdom. That's a significant number of people. Twice as many, for instance, as tend to list education (this may depress you; it depresses me). So the concern is real. But it's still a minority concern. Two thirds of the people in this country don't give a hoot about immigration or race relations.

We are all crackpots, it's just that the things about which we are crackpots vary. My common sense is your crackpottery and vice versa. With bells on. And knobs. It's all very off-putting.

All this being the case what are we supposed to make of Ed Miliband's declaration that he will not hold an In or Out referendum in the next parliament? Assuming, obviously, that he becomes Prime Minister. Which is more probable than not (ye gods).

Well, I think Iain Martin is correct. This suggests Miliband is confident he will win. It may even be something stranger and stronger than that: it might be that he thinks a referendum is the wrong thing to do and not in Britain's interest. Astonishing scenes.

Of course Miliband also knows that he might lose such a referendum. Certainly a Leave Now vote is more probable under Labour than the Conservatives. The easiest way to keep Britain within the EU is to avoid having a referendum. Since Miliband thinks Britain should remain a member of the club his position at least has the merit of making sense.

Which is more than can be said for David Cameron's position. The Prime Minister, I think, wants Britain to remain a member of the EU but will risk that membership to buy off his euro-obsessed backbenchers and members many of whom actually want to leave the EU. They can't both get what they want and it takes no great soothsayer to predict that trouble and ruin lies ahead.

Anyway, Miliband's decision to rule out a referendum (absent some non-existent major new transfer of powers to Brussels) will annoy all kinds of people who were never going to vote for Labour anyway.

More troublingly it will delight many Tory MPs who will spend the next year telling us over and over again that the only way to get a bloody referendum is to vote for Tory government. A vote for Miliband is a vote for Brussels. Or something like that.

Perhaps this will help recruit some UKIP-minded types or persuade waverers to remain within the Tory fold. So far so encouraging. But danger lurks here too. Because I am afraid that this means the Tory election campaign is liable to be even more euro and referendum obsessed than it would otherwise have been. And it was always going to be quite obsessed by these issues.

Which means that the Tories will spend the next year frothing and banging on about Europe all the time. Past experience suggests that is not a good look for the Conservative Party. They risk, yet again, seeming monomaniacal zealots obsessed with all matters European. Fair enough. Lots of important questions that need asking and answering and all of that. But, still, it risks making them seem somewhat eccentric.

So Miliband's move today is, I think, quite clever. A political form of Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope strategy. Let the Tories huff and puff about Europe all they like. Let them punch themselves out. They will tire and more importantly - in this instance - the public will tire of a party ceaselessly banging on about sodding Europe all the time. The Tories will make crackpots of themselves and the public, however sympathetic it might be towards eccentrics, won't elect a divided party dominated by crackpottery.

Or, to put it another way, it may be that Miliband has given the Tories enough rope with which to hang themselves. Worse still, they will do so cheerfully.