Britain's Labour rules out EU membership vote for now

BRIGHTON, England Tue Sep 24, 2013 2:16pm EDT

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron leaves Number 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions at parliament in London September 11, 2013. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron leaves Number 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions at parliament in London September 11, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Luke MacGregor

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BRIGHTON, England (Reuters) - Britain's Labour Party said on Tuesday it won't match Prime Minister David Cameron's promise of a vote on its European Union membership for now, ending high-level debate over changing its stance to wrong-foot the Conservatives before the election.

The decision leaves Cameron's Conservatives, who trail Labour in the polls, as the only big party currently committed to an in/out vote, provided they are returned to power in 2015.

Labour leader Ed Miliband, who made no mention of Europe in an hour-long speech to his party's conference, has resisted calls from a Labour minority to support an in/out vote.

"(We) are very, very committed to the position we have," Labour's Europe spokeswoman Emma Reynolds told a conference meeting about Britain's EU future.

"If we were to change, it would look incredibly cynical at this stage. It would look weak because it would look like we were being pushed into it," she said.

Under pressure from Conservative eurosceptics and anti-EU rivals, Cameron said in January he would seek a new EU deal for Britain and hold a membership referendum by the end of 2017.

If it wins the 2015 election, Labour has already said it will keep an existing British law that requires a referendum to authorize any big power transfer caused by EU treaty changes.

Before the conference, reports in London and Brussels citing unnamed Labour sources had said the party was considering an early in/out poll to upset Cameron's plans and avoid accusations it doesn't trust voters to have their say.

A senior Labour source confirmed there had been no policy change. Labour, split over Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, is now broadly pro-European.

Polls suggest Britons would vote to leave the EU by a narrow margin if a referendum were held now. Critics say the bloc has become too powerful since Britain joined in 1973 and now threatens their sovereignty.

Labour foreign affairs spokesman Douglas Alexander said there had been discussion of a referendum at a senior level, but the leadership favors EU reform from the inside rather than talk of leaving the bloc.

"The luxury of discussion is different from the responsibility of decision," he told a conference meeting.

"Those people within Labour who've argued for a referendum overwhelmingly see it as a means of refreshing consent rather than securing an exit. That's pretty different from the Conservative Party."

Miliband's focus on the economy rather than Europe could store up tactical problems for the future, analysts said.

"For all of Cameron's leadership problems, the Conservatives look like they are leading on the Europe issue, while Labour looks like it is simply dodging it," said Mujtaba Rahman, a director at Eurasia Group, a research company.

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge)

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