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What do Labour Remain voters want?

To reflect its voters, the party needs to reject the choice between a soft Brexit of free trade and a hard Brexit of immigration control.

The government is clearly in something of a pickle as it attempts to implement the electorate’s instruction, delivered on June 23, to extricate the UK from the European Union. While some ministers and backbench Conservative MPs are true believers in Brexit, others are, at best, no more than reluctant converts. Securing a measure of consensus between these two groups on how the UK should approach its negotiation is not going to be easy. It is little wonder that the government has been keen to avoid giving the Commons the ability to vote on its stance: to do so risks exposing divisions in the ranks that could make it difficult to secure parliamentary approval for the government’s approach.

It is not just the government that needs to sort out its approach to Brexit – so does the Labour party. Labour is not without tensions on Brexit either. That much became clear soon after the referendum, when a furious row erupted in the party about how effective its campaigning efforts had been to secure a remain vote – a row that helped precipitate a challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Out of step with core supporters?

Not least among the reasons for this row was the electoral geography of the referendum vote. Support for Leave was generally highest in the north of England and the Midlands – the location, too, of some of Labour’s most loyal heartlands. Indeed, Chris Hanretty has estimated that seven in 10 Labour MPs represent constituencies in which a majority voted to leave the EU. It appeared that to all intents and purposes Labour had failed to take its voters with it in the referendum. In contrast, the vast majority of Labour MPs definitely backed Remain.

We might therefore anticipate that they would now be inclined to support the softest possible Brexit, one that ensures that the UK remains part of the single market even if that means continued acceptance of the EU rules on freedom of movement. However, if the party did not carry its supporters with it in the referendum, perhaps it needs to think twice about its current stance too. Maybe Labour needs to recognise more obviously the concerns of voters about immigration and back the government if, as it seems inclined to do, it makes being able to limit EU migration one of its red lines in negotiations.

Such an approach is one with which some ex-shadow cabinet ministers such as Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna would appear to have some sympathy. In contrast, others closer to the Labour leadership such as Diane Abbott, supporting Mr Corbyn’s own stance, have suggested that the party should not attempt to ‘out-Ukip Ukip’. As a result, those on the left of the party appear to be more willing than those who are more commonly described as business-friendly ‘moderates’ to defend the free trade that big business wants to retain.

Labour voters for Europe

However, electoral geography can be deceptive. A majority of voters in many Labour-held constituencies may have backed Leave, but that does not necessarily mean that most Labour supporters voted that way. The pro-Leave majorities in such seats could have been accounted for by the behaviour of those who voted for one of Labour’s (many) opponents or, indeed, did not vote at all. After all, Labour won the support of more than half the electorate in just two constituencies in the 2015 general election.

In fact, all of the survey evidence on how individual voters behaved on June 23 indicates that a clear majority of those who voted Labour in 2015 and who turned out for the referendum backed Remain. According to the largest such survey, based on a panel of over 30,000 voters interviewed on behalf of the British Election Study (BES), no fewer than 71 per cent of 2015 election Labour voters voted for Remain. A poll of 12,000 voters conducted by Lord Ashcroft on polling day put the figure at 63 per cent – somewhat lower but still well over half. A sample of 5,000 also polled on the day published by YouGov put it at 65 per cent.

Of course, these figures include voters from London, where Labour is strong but where there was a clear vote in favour of remaining in the EU. However, even if we exclude Labour voters in the capital – and in pro-Remain Scotland too – the proportion of 2015 Labour voters who voted for Remain still stands, in the large BES panel, at 69 per cent. In short, it seems clear that even in provincial England, most Labour supporters voted to remain in the EU.

Free trade or immigration controls?

So if most Labour voters voted Remain, does this mean that there is little need for a debate within the party about the stance it should adopt towards the Brexit negotiations? Can we assume that most Remain voters would prefer a soft Brexit and thus, so would most Labour voters?

Remain voters certainly have very different views from Leave supporters on what is widely thought to be the stark choice with which the UK government will be confronted by the EU: either continue free trade or limit immigration. For example, a study of attitudes towards Brexit recently conducted by NatCen Social Research found that 70 per cent of Remain voters said that the UK should ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ allow people from the EU to come here freely to live and work if that were the only way that British firms would be ‘allowed to continue to sell goods and services freely to people in the EU’. In contrast, 70 per cent of Leave supporters said that UK should ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ not strike such a bargain. Other polling from, for example, Opinium and YouGov paints a similar picture.

Similarly, a majority of Labour voters are in favour of continuing to allow freedom of movement in order to secure free trade: as many as 61 per cent of those who voted Labour in the last general election prefer that option, while only 39 per cent are opposed. A poll conducted by Ipsos MORI in October 2016 reported that no fewer than 61 per cent of 2015 election Labour voters believe that Britain should prioritise ‘access to the single market’ and only 28 per cent ‘having control over immigration’. Meanwhile, a poll by ComRes in November found that 52 per cent of 2015 Labour voters believe the government should prioritise ‘maintaining access to the single market’ and only 33 per cent ‘reducing immigration from the EU’.

However, this does not necessarily mean that most Labour voters would not like to see an end to freedom of movement. As well as inviting its respondents to make a choice between free trade and ending freedom of movement, the NatCen study tried to acquire a picture of the kind of relationship with the EU that UK voters would like to see by simply asking them separately whether they were in favour of or against various possible components of a Brexit deal. The results revealed that there is widespread support, including among Labour’s own ranks, both for elements of what might be thought to comprise a ‘hard Brexit’ and for proposals that are often portrayed as a ‘soft Brexit’.

On the one hand, no fewer than 87 per cent of 2015 election Labour voters are in favour of ‘allowing companies based in the EU to sell goods and services freely in Britain in return for allowing British companies to sell goods and services freely in the EU’, while 72 per cent reckon British firms should ‘comply with EU regulations on the design and safety of all the goods that they make’, and even as many as 59 per cent support bank ‘passporting’. But at the same time, 63 per cent believe customs checks should be reintroduced for people and goods moving between Britain and the EU, 66 per cent believe that ‘people from the EU who want to come to live here [should] apply to do so in the same way as people from outside the EU’, and 55 per cent that Britain should be able to place a ‘limit on the number of people from the EU who can come here to live and work’.

If Labour wishes to reflect the views of its voters on Brexit, it needs, in the first instance at least, to be willing to reject the premise from which it is thought the EU would like the negotiations to start – a choice between a soft Brexit of free trade and a hard Brexit of immigration control. And if, as seems quite likely, the UK government tries initially to secure both free trade and a measure of immigration control, the party would be wise to keep its powder dry – and simply insist that the government needs to deliver.

Of course, in practice this is likely to be difficult. Furthermore, given that 61 per cent of 2015 election Conservative voters are against allowing freedom of movement in return for free trade, Mrs May could well be inclined to say ‘no’ to the EU if, in the event, she is forced to choose between the two. At that point Labour’s path would seem to be clear: to say, like many a Labour voter, that she has made the wrong choice and to lambast her for failing to deliver the best of both worlds that voters want, and which she promised.

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University, senior research fellow at NatCen Social Research and contributor to the Economic and Social Research Council’s UK in a Changing Europe initiative. This article originally appeared in IPPR’s journal, Juncture, and was written before the Article 50 vote in the Commons.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.