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1 November 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:51pm

To keep its young supporters, Labour must oppose hard Brexit

In the general election, it was Brexit, stupid. 

By Andrew Mitchell

As the Labour party still continues to come to terms with an election that saw a surge in young voters backing the party, its position on the European question has been unconvincing. After an election that deprived the government of a mandate for Brexit negotiations, the Labour party is at a crossroads. The party accepts the result of the referendum. Yet if Brexit is as damaging as projected, then the possibility of enacting much of the Labour party manifesto becomes distant.

The situation that the young people who voted Labour find themselves in today is a difficult one. A report by the Young Women’s Trust (YWT) published recently found that 41 per cent of young women and 28 per cent of young men spoke of “a real struggle to make their cash last until the end of the month”. One in four young women consider themselves in debt all of the time, and one in ten young parents are forced to use a foodbank because they could not afford food.

It is no surprise therefore that young people voted Labour, with the party winning every age group under the age of 50, including a convincing 66 per cent of 18-19 year olds, and 63 per cent of 20-29 year olds.

The problems that young people are facing, according to the YWT study, lead 47 per cent of young people to being “worried about the future”. Remarkably, 42 per cent of respondents gave the UK exiting the European Union as their top reason for feeling anxious, more than those who worried most about their current financial position and or worrying about employment.

This correlates with the findings of the British Election Study (BES), which reported that the economic situation of young people was not their sole, or even primary reason for voting Labour at the 2017 election; it was, in fact, Brexit. Considering the electorate as whole, the BES found that an overwhelming number of those who voted Remain in the 2016 referendum, voted Labour at the 2017 general election and, as far as those who voted were concerned, the 2017 election was about Brexit.

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In asking voters which was more important, “curbs on immigration” or “single market access”, the study reported a “striking correlation” between supporters of single market access and Labour voters, adding to a poll earlier in the year by the Economic and Social Research Council that found that 66 per cent of Labour members believed Britain should “definitely” stay in the single market. An Ipsos Mori poll found that 49 per cent of voters would prioritise single market access over the 41 per cent of people who prioritised immigration controls.

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This contrast of single market access vs immigration controls also divides generation. Three quarters of young people and graduates, given the choice between one or the other, prioritised access to the single market, as opposed to the same ratio of older people and those with no formal qualifications prioritising immigration controls. A report published by the charity My Life My Say (MLMS), alongside the all-party parliamentary group Better Brexit for Young People, found that young people “want a strong economy that provides adequate schooling, higher education, jobs and housing”, whilst “prioritising sustaining and improving economic growth in the UK”.

With access to a market of 500 million people and 26 million businesses, trade within the European single market accounts for half our total trade, and a £17bn surplus in services, and an end to this membership threatens up to 70,000 jobs. It is no wonder therefore that young people who are worried about their future financial situation, believe this to be a key aspect of Brexit negotiations.

By the Labour party committing to membership of the single market, it would ensure that these jobs are safe, and that the young people who voted for the Labour party at the general election as the party that would most likely protect their futures as part of Brexit negotiations is realised.

If we are to put jobs first in the Brexit negotiations, champion the interests of young people, and be an anti-austerity party, the Labour party simply has to commit to retaining access to the single market.

Andrew Mitchell is a national organiser for the Labour Movement for Europe.