The thinktank British Future said a referendum was the only way to help Labour regain public trust on immigration, a key issue in the runup to next year’s election and one inextricably linked with Europe following the rise of Ukip.
Their researchers say the issue will be forced back on to the agenda after party conferences when Douglas Carswell, who defected from the Tories to Ukip, is expected to win a Clacton-on-sea byelection and become the Eurosceptic party’s first MP.
Polling by YouGov for the thinktank finds that most people (57%) support a referendum on Britain’s EU membership in the next few years, with only 23% opposed. Importantly for Miliband, 45% of Labour supporters back a referendum against just 36% who oppose it.
Those polled were dismissive of the reasons offered for not holding a referendum, with 52% saying that politicians who did not support a vote did so because they thought it would not give them the result they wanted, while 46% of Labour supporters agreed – despite this being their party’s policy.
However, the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, is adamant Labour could not afford to spend the first two years of government wrestling with a referendum on Europe, pointing to the energy it had expended on the near-disastrous no campaign for the Scotland independence vote.
British Future argues, in a publication to be released this autumn focusing on public attitudes to immigration, that offering an in/out EU referendum is a prerequisite for any party that wants to be trusted on the issue.
Matthew Rhodes, strategy director at the thinktank, said: “Restoring public trust on immigration has to be a priority for all the main parties ahead of the general election. Nigel Farage has made hay with this disjoint between the ‘Westminster elite’ and the worries of ordinary people who feel they’re not listened to.
“For Labour, the half-million Poles who moved to Britain under EU free movement, during the last government, has become a stick to beat them with. It’s holding Labour back from engaging effectively in the immigration debate
“The Labour leadership has been making some of the right moves by engaging people’s concerns about contribution and getting a grip on the system. But until they address the elephant in the room – free movement and membership of the EU – people will still think they’re running away from the big issue.
“They need to deal with it and move on. Set out the options available, explain the benefits and the costs of EU membership, and give people a choice.
“If politicians want voters to trust them, they’re going to have to show a bit more trust in the voters.”
The YouGov survey was undertaken online on 14 and 15 September.
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