Is Labour’s Brexit dilemma being misunderstood?

Two by-elections next week in historically safe Labour seats are generating more than the usual level of interest for such contests. The principal opposition party rarely loses a seat it is defending in a by-election – it has only happened four times since 1979. Yet it is being seriously suggested that the Labour party could lose Copeland to the Conservatives, and, perhaps more importantly, Stoke Central to UKIP, where the party’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, is its nominee.

Not least of the reasons for this speculation is Labour’s dire position in the opinion polls. The most recent polls from each of ComRes, ICM, Ipsos MORI, Opinium and YouGov on average credit the party with just 27% of the vote; it has not hitherto been that low in the polls since the 1983 UK general election. Rarely has an opposition party looked as vulnerable in the mid-term of a parliament as Labour does now.

But there is also another reason for the interest – the observation, courtesy of Chris Hanretty, that in nearly two-thirds of the seats held by the party (and in no less than four-fifths of those located in the North of England and the Midlands) a majority of voters voted to leave the EU.

Cue much discussion about the party’s need to ‘reconnect’ with traditional, working class Labour voters in the party’s provincial heartlands, many of whom supposedly voted to Leave, and thus fend off the threat to that vote from UKIP – a threat for which the Stoke by-election in particular is being portrayed as a litmus test. It has even been suggested that unless it does so, the party might find that the EU referendum does as much damage to its electoral prospects in North of England as the independence referendum has done in Scotland.

Analysis of election and referendum outcomes by constituency can be highly informative – I do a fair amount of it myself. But it always needs to be interpreted with care. In particular, it does not necessarily follow that because a majority of all voters in most Labour constituencies voted to Leave, most Labour voters in those constituencies must have voted that way. After all, there are plenty of people who did not vote Labour in those seats.

On average the party won just half the vote – and less than a third of the electorate – in them in 2015. So there are plenty of non-Labour voters whose choice last June could also have been responsible for the overall pro-Leave outcome in Labour held seats.

To ascertain how individual Labour voters (as opposed to all voters in Labour-held constituencies) behaved in the referendum we have to look to the evidence of surveys that have asked voters how they voted. The largest survey of how people voted in the referendum is an internet panel run by the academic British Election Study (BES). It interviewed just over 30,000 people after the referendum, and thus is big enough not only to look at how Labour voters behaved across the country as a whole, but also in particular parts, such as in the North of England or in Labour-held seats.

First up, according to this survey across Britain as a whole, 63% of those who voted Labour in 2015 and who cast a ballot in the EU referendum last June voted to Remain. This estimate is not dissimilar to that of other surveys. NatCen’s internet panel also put the figure at 63% when it asked people last September how they had voted, while YouGov’s on the day poll put the figure at 65% and Lord Ashcroft’s similar exercise reckoned it was just a little higher at 70%. So there is no doubt that across Britain as a whole, most Labour voters – probably nearly two in three – voted to Remain.

But is this true everywhere? After all, according to Hanretty’s estimates, in Labour-held seats in London and the South of England on average 61% voted for Remain, whereas in the North of England and the Midlands only 42% did so.  Perhaps in the more ‘traditional’ Labour territory in the North of England and the Midlands, most Labour voters did in fact back Leave?

Not so, according to the BES data. True, as the table shows, Labour voters in the North of England and the Midlands were less likely to vote for Remain than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK. However, it is still the case that a clear majority of Labour voters across these two regions (58%) voted to Remain. Moreover, Labour were by no means unique in having a more Eurosceptic body of supporters in the North and the Midlands – those who voted for other parties in the northern half of England, including for the Conservatives, were also somewhat less likely to vote for Remain than their counterparts elsewhere.

In short, the higher level of support for Leave in the North and the Midlands is not just accounted for by the behaviour of Labour voters there. Indeed, but for the behaviour of those who did not vote Labour, those two parts of England would have recorded a majority vote to Remain.

But, you may ask, what about the position in those seats that Labour actually won in 2015? Is it not this that matters? In fact, the answer proves to be much the same. According to the BES, in Labour-held seats across Britain as a whole 63% of Labour voters voted to Remain, exactly the same as the proportion across the country as a whole. As we might now expect, the figure is somewhat lower in Labour seats located in the North of England and the Midlands, but at 57% it is not significantly different from the proportion (58%) across the North of England and the Midlands as a whole.

So, a substantial minority of 2015 Labour voters in Labour-held seats in the North of England and the Midlands did vote to Leave. But it is no more than a minority. Indeed, it is not much bigger than the proportion of Conservative voters in Conservative-held seats who voted for Remain (37%), a group whose continued loyalty to their party might also be thought to be potentially vulnerable in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Ensuring Labour’s survival in the North of England and the Midlands is not just a question of strengthening the party’s appeal to the so-called traditional Labour voter who voted to Leave. There are simply not enough of them for that alone to be a viable strategy. Rather, it is also about retaining the support of the majority of Labour voters in the northern half of England who voted to Remain. For without them, the party really will be in trouble.

By John Curtice, senior fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University. This posted originally featured on WhatUKthinksEU.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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  • Anne Deighton

    brilliant analysis, that exposes that it is both major parties who are exposed when it comes to brexit. EU has always been a cross cutting issue but it should not now be presented as an issue relating to Labour melt down, and not also Tory divisions (remember Maastricht divisions). Tories are managing dissent far better than Labour have, and have not seriously been challenged to ask whether their considered opinions on EU should trump party tribalism. For those who think that, in a mature democracy, voters should have a chance to revisit earlier decisions when they know the end-game, rather than just the Brexit route out this information is invaluable. Lib Dems, amongst others, – should read this as they start to think strategically about 2019…

  • ruth waterton

    I joined the Liberal Democrats less than a week after the referendum result, despite being a lifelong Labour voter and living in a constituency represented by a Labour MP pro-Remain enough to resign as a Labour whip in order to vote against party lines in the Article 50 debate. My main motivation was disgust at Corbyn’s clear reluctance to make the case for Remain, and my desire to support the one political party still 100% committed to a European future. I feel completely disenfanchised at the moment, feeling that the Labour Party would rather face oblivion than take the views of people like myself into account.

    • Callum McCormick

      What is it you would like the Labour Party to do?

      • Kentish Geordie

        Oppose Brexit or at the very least say there must be confirmatory vote in the form of a Referendum, or in Parliament, that the deal negotiated is acceptable. Meanwhile someone needs to nail the crucial legal issue, or at the very least sound out the EU, that if after Article 50 is triggered, the UK changes its mind and decides it does not want to leave is its departure to be enforced by the 27? If having been faced with oblivion and then determined it was not an attractive option, how powerful a pro EU message would that be and you would think that Germany’s Pastor’s daughter would remember her bible: “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).

        • Michael Griffin

          Labour have already said that the deal needs putting before a meaningful parliamentary vote before being accepted or otherwise. There were amendments put forward to try and get this on the face of the bill, and further attempts will be made in the Lords.

        • robertsonjames

          If Article 50 were revocable it would allow a member state to give notice to quit, force the rest of the EU to make important concessions in order to keep The Project on the road and then simply withdraw that notice after having extracted a better deal than they would otherwise have got. In short it would become the most potent of all negotiating ploys inside the EU, not a one-way route out of it.

          It’s inconceivable that the realists in Paris and Berlin don’t know the trouble such an eventuality would be storing up for the future and therefore highly unlikely that they would countenance the UK withdrawing its notice to quit.

          I do, though, love the fact that in your own mind this country is a “sinner” for daring reject the theology of “ever closer union” and its eventual absorption into the United States of Europe. This tells me that you still aren’t close to figuring out why you lost the campaign.

        • John Stobbart

          They did oppose Brexit. They lost. Why are you people so obsessed with fighting last year’s battles?

          • Kentish Geordie

            Because “you people”, as you so charmingly refer to us, do not accept that the result was fair, was for a hard Brexit (the question was not to stay or leave no matter what the cost) and would be replicated now. I actually have no problem with negotiations taking place about leaving the EU – that is what the Referendum vote was about, but it did not give cart blanche to this Government (or any other) to take us out of the single market and customs union without a confirmatory vote. The detail of what Parliament agreed to (and the Courts have now unequivocally indicated that Parliament – not the right wing of the Conservative Party – is sovereign) is important. And in a democracy I expect the law to be upheld, to be able to speak against something I do not like or find unjust, and most of all to hold elected politicians to justify their actions. So when they tell me to shut up, or say ‘you lost’ or that I am un-democratic, I remind them in this country we have the rule of law, free speech (including on social media), the right for electorates to change their mind and that when dismissing the 48% of those who voted on the referendum (only 27% of the total electorate at the next GE voted for Leave) that we get to vote on what they say and do today in 3 years time – and quite possibly much sooner. So I am not fighting yesterday’s battles, I am fighting the next ones!

          • John Stobbart

            Please stop making numbers up to justify your arguments. The 48% are growing smaller all the time. Another referendum would see a huge victory for leave according to all polls and the logic of all reasonable people. You lost, however you want to spin it. The result was indeed fair, the leave side overcame all sorts of lies from the remain conmen

          • Really John, Accusing other of making up numbers and then doing so yourself.

            We voted to leave the EU.

            We did not vote to leave the single market, (no Mandate)
            We did not vote to leave tree customs union (no Mandate)
            We did not vote to control immigration (Not asked)
            We did not vote to take back control (we never lost any)
            We did not vote for a loss of sovereignty (but Mrs May seems determined to bully the Lords, and avoid the commons at every turn, bot even giving them any real say in the outcome of the negotiations)
            We did not vote for a reduction in democracy (which is about government for ALL the people not just the majority)
            We did not vote for a £60bn exit cost, but we did vote for £350M more for the NHS every week (The former we will pay, the latter we never will)
            We did not vote for rapidly rising inflation, but that is now with us. Raw material inflation is running at over 20% – In a year consumer prices are likely to be rising at double the rate of wages, and we’ll be rapidly rising interest rates to seek to control it.
            In a related matter we did not vote for a devaluation of the pound, but British businesses remain vulnerable to foreign takeovers and fuel and food prices are rising significantly.

            These last two points highlight that we did not vote to enrich the wealthy and impoverish the poor, but that’s the policy that is being pursued.

            #Brexit hurts the poor.

          • John Stobbart


          • twatkicker

            Tory policies hurt the poor and have done since 2010.

          • Kentish Geordie

            I don’t make up numbers, I deal with them every day and I know someone who is trying to ignore what they actually say. 52% of those who were eligible to vote is 37.5% of the total electorate in the Referendum. But as we know Brits living in the EU, Europeans living here, 16-18 year olds, and the many who did not register to vote add up to another 6-7 million whose vote should have been counted, which makes less than a third of the voting age population actually voting to leave. In virtually every other democratic country significant constitutional change requires a two thirds majority for just this reason. And I don’t know what fantasy analysis you are looking at – probably the daily mail or daily express – but the idea that the Leave vote has risen is laughably untrue. Fake news and who can should loudest (and in the most intimidating manner) may be as acceptable to Brexiteers as it is to Trump worshippers, but I like my facts checked, referenced and verified. Its called speaking the truth!

          • John Stobbart

            Eh? 16-18 year olds votes should not count. They are not old enough to vote.

            Europeans living here’s votes should not count. They are not eligible to vote.

            People who didn’t register to vote’s votes should not count. They did not register to vote.

            People who didn’t vote’s votes shoudl not count. They did not bother to vote.

            You’re really scraping the barrel there. That’s some serious mental gymnastics you’ve done to convince yourself the public don’t want to leave the EU. A recent Chatham House poll said that 3% of leavers think we made the wrong decision whilst 14% of remainers think we made the right decision. Go look it up yourself. Those numbers clearly add up to a big victory for leave in any future vote. Your support base for the EU is shrinking as people figure out they were lied to by the remain side pre referendum.

          • Not in their role as Her Majesty’s official opposition in the House of Commons. They were whipped to do the exact opposite of their constitutional duty.

          • John Stobbart

            Rubbish. They supported a referendum. They opposed Brexit in the referendum. They lost. Politically, supporting the result of the referendum they supported was the only logical and tenable action

          • You may consider a party’s constitutional duty to be ‘rubbish’ but I don’t.

            In parliamentary debates* in the house the oppositions job is to oppose. When it comes to the vote their job changes to that of constituency representatives where their responsibility lies with their constituents, and in some cases it’s reasonable for a party to whip it’s members but usually that’s a decision made when the Government and the opposition want different things. At the end of the day though the opposition are so called for a reason.

            * try having a debate where there’s only one side, nothing much gets explored, risks are not considered, alternatives ignored, and first solution bias wins every time. That doesn’t give us the best result by a long way.

            It matters because it ensures that government business is given proper scrutiny.

          • John Stobbart

            Then you’re just factually incorrect. They did oppose. They proposed amendments and during the debate they argued against leaving the single market, they argued to have EU citizens rights guaranteed and many other arguments were made

          • Indeed on those points they proposed amendments which is not quite the same as standing in opposition of the premise.

            The thesis of the act discussed was the triggering of A50, there was no antithesis, as a result there was no synthesis around which a national consensus could form. The political process that is intended to ensure that even view is considered has failed. The divisions and bitterness between the two opposing views isn’t being resolved even nearly a year on.

            I can’t recall such a divisive time, It’s simply not healthy in any democracy for that to happen. Would you agree that that is unusual in a historical context.

          • John Stobbart

            Their job is not automatically to assume the opposite stance on everything the government does. I don’t think you quite understand the role of an opposition

          • Oh I think I do. I’m speaking only of a specific context of being in parliament, in debate,

            Not that any party has properly carried out their duty for a generation, and the result is that there is ignorance of how our constitution is designed and why.

            In the country, in constituencies, in the media there’s a need to campaign on manifesto and on principles. Parliament isn’t the sane, it is a structured process designed to ensure proper scrutiny.

            The biggest change came with the televising of parliament because it brought a level of attention and visibility that affected behaviour. Reading Hansard is illuminating.

      • Be an “opposition” to Government.

    • chazwyman

      Why abandon your party over ONE issue? There is no avoiding Brexit, and it does not matter how many of you people join the LIberals, brexit is going to happen. There is NO advantage to staying in the EU. ALl the benefits we get from it can be provided without it. But joining the Liberals just means that your vote no longer counts, and the more people like you there are, the more chance the Tories will become the only successful parliamentary party. making not only the LIberals irrelevant but Labour too. You are being played like a cheap violin.

  • redgrouper

    Excellent article. I joined the Libe Dems because they are only Party standing up for Remain voters. Public whims change and the winds could blow in he direction of Remain again once the reality of Brexit sinks in. Nobody told Scottish Nationalists that they have give up their dream of Scottish Independence because of one ref result yet Remainers are being told to shut up and accost a hard Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn is not a leader. If he was he would be doing what Blair is doing and trying to persuade the public rather than follow what he thinks they want.

    • John Stobbart

      Nobody’s told the Scottish nationalists to forget it forever, but what some people want is the equivalent of the SNP just going ahead and declaring independence anyway even after losing the referendum

  • Jonathan Morris

    Cool. I wrote a blog about six months ago making a similar point – Labour will lose more votes than it gains by being pro-Leave.

    • redgrouper

      An excellent article it is too. And very prophetic. Recently analysed statistics have revealed that even in pro- Brexit constituencies, the majority of Labour voters who cast a vote in the referendum voted Remain. I think the Leave majorities can to a certain extent be explained by people who never normally vote in General elections. If this is true then supporting Brexit will be disastrous for Labour. Another factor is that Corbyn’s weak support for Remain followed by his failure to wrestle any concessions for May clearly demonstrate how weak a leader he is.
      Interestingly they are lot of people on the hard left who seem to have suddenly discovered after the Brexit vote that they like democracy and listening to the will of the people. This has never been their tactics in the past but they suddenly want to honour the voice of the people. They are hoping that Brexit will give them the chance to usher in a new socialist utopia with Corbyn as PM, without any restraint from the ‘neoliberal’ EU. They really are hopeless bu they have been allowed to stage a coup and take over Labour. The only answer I think is for Labour moderates to form a new party or job the Lib Dems. Labour is finished as a political force.

  • Kentish Geordie

    Of course, the current Labour disposition is not designed represent the best outcome for their voters – which would unequivocally be to stay in the EU for a large number and variety of reasons – but to give Corbyn and his cronies their only potential route to power, namely, economic chaos after the UK leaves the EU and a huge backlash against aggressive right wing conservatism as a consequence. As with all marxists the idea of creative destruction to generate the conditions for a revolution is their lifetimes work, and they don’t give a monkey’s uncle who gets trampled underfoot in the process, labour supporters or not. The only think that matters is they attain power and can exercise it. Intervening by acting to protect and then improve the living conditions and life prospects of the great majority of the population and in so doing reduce the inequality that is at the heart of this existential crisis, is nowhere on there list of priorities – indeed it may not even be on their list at all, as it would create an asset owning middle class who would give short shrift to their Bolshevik predilections. There may be things to dislike about Tony Blair, but he does at least have a singular clarity of insight about the British political scene and what political leadership involves. I am waiting for someone, anyone, to pick up this cudgel and challenge what amounts to a right wing coup which has taken place in the country in the last 6-8 months. We did not vote in the last General Election or indeed the Referendum for Theresa May as Prime Minister, for a hard Brexit, for a Health Service which is being strangled by lack of funding, for the loss of 10-15% of the asset value of each and every person in this country – because that is what the drop in the value of the pound actually means! More did we vote to be a laughing stock around the world and to be politically aligned with Donald Trump. I want my decent, civilised country back and I am waiting for someone to come forward who is going to show how that can be achieved.

    • redgrouper

      Well said but you have underestimated the loss of market value. The market value of being an EU citizen is about €0.5 million. That is what Malta (in investments) and Cyprus (in property purchase) make non-EU nationals such as rich Chinese citizens invest in their respective countries to become EU citizens. That’s the value of an EU passport on the open market and Brexiteers have stolen that plus all the rights of citizenship, access to European Court and working hours and environmental protection from each and every one of us.

  • Joshua Calvert

    I will be, reluctantly, voting Lib-Dem in any forthcoming national election. Labour have waved the white flag to the Right. I don’t want to vote Lib-Dem, I don’t even like them, but they’re the only party left that seems to be standing up for things I will not compromise on.

  • chazwyman

    For all those Remoaners flouncing off you are doing exactly what the Tories want you to do – split their opposition. Whilst the Tories close ranks for Brexit, they are laughing all the way to the bank having manipulated the agenda, once again. 2020 is going to be a Tory landslide on about 35% of the votes.

    • Darren Stansfield

      Way to go ! If any remain voter was in any doubt about leaving the Labour party you’ve just helped them out the door. The only people serving the Tories are nasty and divisive brexiteers like you

      • John Stobbart

        Remain voter does not equal remoaner. Most remain voters accept the result and aren’t stuck in the previous year

        • Kentish Geordie

          Evidence of the most recent polls and academic research of the June 2016 suggest otherwise. Here’s a thought. Instead of telling everyone who does not agree to shut up (hint it makes them only more certain to do the opposite), why don’t you practice what you preach, keep quiet and wait and see. As you are so keen to tell us again, and again, and again – Leave won. They did, so what are you worried about – or is it you just like lauding it over others, or bullying those that don’t agree with you.

          • John Stobbart

            Who did I tell to shut up? There’s a difference between telling people to shut up and refuting their arguments or pointing out they are fighting a battle from last year.

  • woodkerne

    Corbyn’s tears in supporting Conservative government’s determination revealed to be of crocodile variety.

  • Maria P Hoskins

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