Just because some people feel very strongly indeed about the UK’s membership of the EU does not mean that they should be allowed to place this issue at the centre of the political agenda. Despite the efforts of Nigel Farage, assorted Tories and, crucially, the billionaires who control most of our press, the vast majority of the British people have other priorities.
In January 2013 a joint Economist/Ipsos Mori poll set out the top ten issues that voters thought were facing Britain. The EU did not feature at all. In February, Harris carried out a similar poll of the top 15 issues. The EU was ranked 14th out of 15 priorities.
Once asked specifically about the EU issue, it is true that the public are in favour of a referendum. However, if asked specifically in an opinion poll, people would no doubt say that they were in favour of referenda on a host of issues e.g. the NHS, education or tax. People naturally like the theoretical idea of having their views counted on issues. (Personally, I would like a referendum on a binding commitment to abolish child poverty and also one every twenty years on the abolition of the monarchy – everyone may have their own wish-list)
The rise of UKIP is taken as evidence that the UK’s membership of the EU is a major issue in the electorate but this is not borne out by detailed polling. In December 2012, Lord Ashcroft published the results of the most comprehensive ever poll into the attitudes of UKIP voters and “considerers”. He reported that only just over a quarter of UKIP supporters put the EU in their top three most important issues facing the UK; only 7% put the EU as their top issue. Ashcroft concluded that it wasn’t the EU issue that attracted people to UKIP but their “outlook”. UKIP attracts people who think the country is going to the dogs, loathe political correctness and want to take Britain back to a time when things were “done more sensibly”.
If David Cameron had studied Lord Ashcroft’s research he would know that he is as likely to alienate UKIP supporters by his gay marriage proposals as anything he does on the EU.
As for Ed Miliband, he must resist the siren voices and the bullying press telling him he must offer an in/out referendum after the 2015 election. The UK’s membership of the EU is not a priority issue for the British electorate. They are far more concerned with growth, jobs, education, skills, housing, the NHS and other issues.
If Miliband were to offer a referendum it would probably blight his premiership. In opposition the Tories would be unrestrained in their Europhobia and, backed by Murdoch and the rest, they would probably win a referendum. That would destroy Miliband’s government and worse, in the words of Vince Cable, the UK once out of the EU would “end up like Ukraine”.