Ed Miliband is warning Labour voters that if they fail to turn out and vote to keep Britain in the European Union on 23 June, the country will become the laboratory for a rightwing, free market experiment.
As he prepares to mark his return to frontline politics after Labour’s bruising defeat in the general election, Miliband is to give a major speech at a Labour in for Britain event alongside the former home secretary Alan Johnson on Tuesday.
He will urge the 9 million people who voted Labour last May not to be distracted by the turmoil in the Tory party from turning out to back remain.
“This is not about David Cameron, and this is not about who leads the Tory party after David Cameron. It’s about the future of the country. We’re going to be having to live with the consequences of this well after David Cameron’s gone, and George Osborne’s gone,” he told the Guardian.
“You look at the real agenda of most of those who want us to leave, and it’s precisely the opposite of what Labour voters voted for. Look at these folk: Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage. They don’t like our membership of the EU because they feel constrained in their free market experiment.”
He said leaving the EU would remove the protection for workers’ rights that comes with membership, allowing future Tory governments to unleash a “race to the bottom”.
“IDS’s vision of the future of the country is just not one we could support,” he said.
Tuesday’s speech had been planned before the dramatic events of the weekend, when Duncan Smith resigned as work and pensions secretary over cuts to disability benefits which were included in last week’s budget, then abruptly abandoned.
But Miliband believes the damage inflicted on the reputations of the prime minister and the chancellor – the figureheads for the remain campaign in June’s referendum – exacerbates the risk that pro-Europe Labour voters stay at home.
“Let them tear themselves apart,” he said. “But on Europe? It’s too important to be left to them.”
Labour has its own pro-EU group, Labour in for Britain, headed by Johnson. But some in the remain campaign fear the debate risks being written off as a scrap between senior Conservatives, which would fail to motivate the left-of-centre voters whose support will be essential to winning the referendum.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has sometimes appeared a reluctant advocate of EU membership, will set out his own case for staying in with a speech after Easter. Miliband said: “Jeremy is as passionate as I am about the importance of staying in.”
Miliband has made few public appearances since last year’s election defeat, wary of being seen as a back-seat driver as Corbyn took up the leadership. But he has continued to campaign on inequality and climate change; and recently succeeded in persuading the government to accept a cross-party amendment enshrining zero-emissions targets in law.
He argues that climate change is one of the many international issues that would be harder to tackle if the UK were no longer an EU member. “Twenty-first century problems are across borders,” he said. “Tax avoidance, climate change, terrorism: we’re not going to be able to tackle these problems on our own.”
Without EU membership, he asked, “what is going to be the counter to the power of businesses that can move across borders in the 21st century?
“All these things become much, much more difficult when you’re on your own. We have always succeeded as an outward-looking country.”
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