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.