The sudden rise of UKIP has prompted the three main parties to take tougher stances on a variety of issues, particularly when it comes to the EU. David Cameron has promised a referendum on the European Union in the Conservative Party’s 2015 manifesto. So far, Ed Miliband has resisted doing the same; something for which he has received criticism from sections of the media, the public and from Mr Cameron himself.
Mr Miliband’s unwillingness to promise a referendum on Europe has been easily exploited by the Conservatives. On several occasions, David Cameron has said that the Labour leader is afraid of the British public and “too chicken” to promise a referendum.
However, this could prove to be a golden opportunity for the Labour leader to show strength of leadership and to win over swing voters.
Numerous recent studies and polls have concluded that the greatest concern for swing voters is Ed Miliband’s weak leadership.
Why then be pushed around by UKIP, a party with only two MPs? A party who did not win these seats by defeating established MPs, but by convincing two well-established Conservative MPs to defect who then won the by-elections they prompted in their own constituencies.
Coverage of the European Union in the UK press is overwhelmingly negative and, as Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform, puts it, this entrenched euroscepticism risks Britain “sleepwalking to the EU exit”.
This is an opportunity for Ed Miliband to take a stand. He could make it clear that he will not make a referendum pledge on the EU whilst a minority party with extremist views hijacks the debate.
This is neither a pro or anti European argument, merely a sensible practical one. It should not alienate or offend Eurosceptic voters.
It would not even be a difficult argument to win, as UKIP keeps giving its detractors so much material to work with.
It seems that Nigel Farage has to apologise for something one of his councillors or party workers has said or done on an almost weekly basis.
UKIP party candidate, John Sullivan, claimed that exercise in schools “prevents people becoming gay”.
UKIP councillor David Silvester blamed last year’s floods on gay marriage.
In an interview with Channel 4 News, one of UKIP’s top donors, Demetri Marchessini, said that homosexuals were motivated by lust not love, that marital rape was not possible, that slavery improved the standard of living of black people and that women should be legally prohibited from wearing trousers.
The call for a referendum from within Labour is not even particularly strong.
Some Labour figures who were once openly calling for a referendum have adjusted their views since the rise of UKIP.
Former European Commissioner Peter Mandelson, who once called for a referendum on the European Union, has since accused David Cameron of “waving his EU referendum in the air like a pistol”.
The recent British Election Study suggests that Labour seats are far less vulnerable to the threat from UKIP than Conservative seats. Professor Geoff Evans from Nuffield College at Oxford University, who worked on the study, argues that traditional Labour voters who have been put off by the party’s stance on Europe and immigration have already left the party.
Professor Evans says that the study shows that “UKIP’s voters are overwhelmingly taken from those who voted Conservative in 2010. Even the Liberals lose more to UKIP than do Labour”.
Labour has already lost their Eurosceptic voters. They left in 2001 and in 2005 and it would be extremely difficult to win them back now, so why try?
Young voters, a key Labour demographic, are particularly put off by anti-EU rhetoric.
The Observer recently revealed that over 60% of 17-22 year olds believe that membership of the EU is beneficial to the UK and just 13% approved of Nigel Farage.
Young voters should be a key target for Miliband and buckling under the pressure of UKIP to make a pledge on a EU referendum would only alienate Labour from over three million individuals.
This is not to say that Labour cannot critique the EU. It is merely saying that Ed Miliband should make it clear that he will not risk such a significant vote whilst a fringe party so overwhelmingly dominates the discussion.
David Cameron keeps saying that if the public vote for UKIP they will get a Labour government, and he has a point. If Ed Miliband can put forward a strong centrist position on Europe and stand up to UKIP, he will increase his appeal with swing voters, secure the support of young voters and extend an olive branch to Eurosceptic Labour voters.
Meanwhile, the passionately anti-EU vote will be split between the Conservatives and UKIP, helping Miliband further.