Ed Miliband is no stranger to awkward moments, but so far the worst he’s been faced with is a bacon sandwich – until yesterday when a worker at the BAE factory in Lancashire told him “we’re all voting Ukip.”
Miliband was on a tour of the workshops at the BAE site in Samlesbury, where the F35 Lightning II and Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft are built, when he was confronted by electrician Peter Baldwin who told him: “This morning we sat in the brew room over there, your workers, and they are all leaning now towards Ukip. Now, the question on everybody’s mind is the referendum. I know what you’re going to say, but the working class man in here wants to have a say.”
The confrontation is particularly embarrassing for Miliband as Labour is traditionally seen as the party of the working class, and plays into the view that Ukip is now challenging the party’s dominance among this section of the electorate.
Miliband tried to deflect the awkward line of questioning by interjecting “Immigration is a big issue for lots of people as well, isn’t it”, before setting out Labour’s policies on immigration, including a ban on claiming benefits for immigrants who have been in the country for less than two years before wrapping up with a cheery “anyway, very nice to meet you!”
Mr Baldwin later told the BBC that the chat had taken place between “20-odd working-class blokes”, of whom he said: “Basically they are just not happy with Labour at the moment. The big thing with the working-class man is immigration and Europe.”
Miliband has repeatedly faced down calls from donors to match the Conservative pledge to hold and in-out referendum. Last July, in response to calls from the union Unite for a referendum, Miliband said: “I have no truck with those who say we should cut ourselves off from the rest of the world.”
Douglas Alexander, Labour’s pro-EU shadow Foreign Secretary concurs, insisting that continued EU membership “remains central to our prosperity and security”, and that Labour would “set itself the task of reviewing, repairing, and resetting our country’s approach to Europe.”
But the challenge by Mr Baldwin comes as another Labour donor, John Mills, who has handed the party £1.65 million in total, again renewed calls for a change of Labour policy on the issue, the Daily Mail has reported. Speaking at a Eurosceptic conference, Mr Mills said: “I have heard rumours that there is a majority of people in the shadow cabinet who are in favour of having a referendum.
“I’m sure one of the reasons for this is concern about whether refusing to have a referendum is going to lose Labour votes in what is going to be a very tight election. I think it certainly will and this is one of the major reasons why, from a tactical and strategic point of view, it is in the Labour party’s interests to have a referendum sometime between 2015 and 2020.”
Mr Mills, who is a Eurosceptic, campaigned against Britain’s continuing membership of what was then known as the European Economic Community during the 1975 referendum. He told the audience that if there is another referendum, senior Labour figures ought to be allowed to campaign according to their conscience, saying “What was agreed then [in 1975] was that each side of the Labour party could make speeches and campaign for what they thought was right. My guess is that something like that will happen again. I think the unions will probably be split as well.”
He said that it was not “impossible” that Labour might have a change of heart on whether or not to hold a referendum, warning that merely attempting to renegotiate without the threat of a referendum hanging over Brussels would “inevitably weaken the UK’s bargaining position. Minds in Brussels are much more likely to take renegotiation seriously if they know that there is a substantial risk that the UK will leave the EU if there is not a satisfactory deal on the table to persuade the UK to stay in.
“Whether they want to remain in the EU or they want to leave, there are many in the Labour Party who are united in their belief that the British people must be given an EU referendum to put this issue to bed once and for all,” he concluded.