Comment

Challenging the Labour Party's EU strategy

Andrew Blick / Apr 2023

Photo: Shutterstock

 

Brexit appears increasingly to be the project of a political elite out of touch with the views of the public. There is clear evidence that a growing majority of voters regard exit from the European Union (EU) as having been harmful to the country; and think that it should not have taken place. But this tendency in public opinion is not yet properly reflected in the options available to electors. The Conservatives, as one might expect, seemingly remain broadly committed to the position that leaving the EU has already delivered benefits and will continue to do so under their leadership. Labour, on the other hand, depicts itself as accepting of Brexit; ruling out ever rejoining the EU, the Single Market, or the Customs Union, or restoring freedom of movement. According to Labour, the problem with Brexit is that the Conservatives have mishandled it; and that a Labour government would somehow be able to remove some of the trade friction that has appeared, and improve relations with the EU; while also taking advantage of possibilities for regulatory flexibility.

The Labour stance might seem, on the surface, puzzling. Keir Starmer was – along with other senior Labour figures – a prominent supporter of ‘remain’ in 2016, and afterwards an advocate of a second referendum that might prevent departure. Moreover, most Labour voters backed remain in 2016, and – as already noted – members of the public as a whole seem increasingly to view Brexit as a mistake.

But because of the way that the UK ‘First-Past-the-Post’ voting system works, a particular viewpoint can achieve electoral importance out of proportion to its total popularity. Support for Brexit was high in a number of seats – known collectively as the Red Wall – that Labour lost at the 2019 General Election. The party seems to have drawn the conclusion that it cannot come back to power if it criticises Brexit, since to do so would preclude reversing its Red Wall losses, which it judges it must do to return to office. But – in as far as it was ever true – does this view remain correct in light of growing public hostility towards Brexit? The Constitution Society commissioned a poll last month to help answer this question.

Find Out Now interviewed 1,862 GB adults across Great Britain and a further 1,457 GB adults living in “Red Wall” seats online from 10-14 March 2023. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of all GB adults by gender, age, social grade, other demographics and past voting patterns. The sub-samples of those respondents who had a clear voting intention (excluding don’t knows and refuseds) were also weighted to be representative. For full details go to: https://consoc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/The-Constitution-Society-Red-Wall-Polling-March-2023.pdf

The polling found that there would be no electoral penalty for Labour if the Party said Brexit was a mistake, and that it could even gain from doing so. With its present stance of ‘make Brexit work’, Labour is projected to win 527 seats in the House of Commons, a majority of 404. If it said Brexit was a mistake, its seats total could rise to 550. Labour is currently on course to sweep all 42 Red Wall seats. This poll reveals that the Party would still be on course to win all 42 seats if it said Brexit was a mistake.

The poll found that, among the general population of Great Britain:

  1. Most people (59%) think Brexit has made Britain worse off, with 9 per cent thinking it has made Britain better off  
  2. Most people (55%) think that Brexit was a mistake, with 27 per cent thinking that it was not 
  3. On General Voting Intention, Labour has a lead of 26% over the Conservatives 
  4. This lead could grow to 28% if Labour said Brexit was a mistake 

Among Red Wall voters: 

  • Exactly half say that Brexit has made Britain worse off, with 12 per cent saying better off
  • 46% say Brexit was a mistake, with 30 per cent saying it was not
  • On General Voting Intention, Labour has a lead of 33% over the Conservatives 
  • This lead could shrink to 30% if Labour said Brexit was a mistake, but the Party would still win all 42 Red Wall seats.

The Labour leadership has committed heavily to its current position, and would find any reversal difficult. Furthermore, in the event that it did alter its stance and depict Brexit as a mistake, there would be a wider context that this poll could not fully address. What for instance, would Labour’s actual policy prescription be, and how would voters react to it? We cannot know for sure. Nonetheless, presenting Brexit as a mistake could potentially expand the discretion available to a future Labour government, were one to come about, possibly making options it has previously excluded easier to explore in office. Moreover, on the evidence we now have, it need not be the liability in the Red Wall some believe it would be.

 

Andrew Blick

Andrew Blick

April 2023

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