Do Labour Supporters Back A Softer Brexit?

Posted on 26 February 2024 by John Curtice

Should he win the next general election, one of the key decisions that will face Sir Keir Starmer will be whether and how far to seek a softening of the terms of the Brexit deal negotiated by Boris Johnson. Although Labour have ruled out any attempt to rejoin the EU, the party has left the door ajar to moving towards a somewhat closer relationship with the single market. Among the possibilities that have been voiced are the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, the introduction of a mobility scheme, and minimising regulatory divergence.

It might be thought that there is considerable support for taking such steps within Labour’s ranks. After all, for the last eighteen months or so polls have consistently been suggesting that around three-quarters of those who currently say they would vote Labour also say that they would now vote to re-join the EU, a picture that is also reflected in the latest Redfield & Wilton poll for UK in a Changing Europe. While a softening of Brexit might be a smaller step than pro-re-join voters would like, presumably they would welcome anything that might be a step towards a closer relationship.

Yet this is a subject where previous polling has suggested that voters’ views are not necessarily as consistent as might be anticipated. For example, Redfield & Wilton have found that while a plurality support the UK adopting EU laws and regulations for goods sold at home in exchange for the EU not checking goods being transported from the UK to the EU, at the same time a majority back the UK having its own laws and regulations for goods sold at home at the cost of the EU imposing checks on goods being exported into the EU. Further examples of such apparently contradictory findings can be found here. It seems that the well-known tendency for survey respondents to agree rather than disagree with a proposition that is put to them has a particularly strong impact on responses to questions to this subject, an indication perhaps that many voters do not have firm views either way.

To try and overcome the risk of ‘acquiescence bias’ influencing the pattern of answers, in the latest Redfield & Wilton poll we introduced some new questions that address some of the ways in which Brexit might be softened by inviting people to choose between a ‘soft’ or a ‘hard’ Brexit option rather than being asked to agree or disagree with a proposition. Thus, for example, in the case of food sold in the UK we asked respondents whether they would prefer the UK to follow EU regulations and not have British food checked at the EU border, or whether they would prefer the UK to adopt its own regulations and accept checks at the EU border. Similar trade-off questions were asked about the regulation of electrical goods and the introduction of a youth mobility scheme that would give under 35s in Britain and the EU the right to migrate to and work in the EU/Britain for up to two years.

As the table below shows, the answers to these questions – together with a further question on the general principle of whether it is better for the UK to have its own laws or to be able to trade easily with the EU  – cast some doubt on how far those who would currently vote to re-join the EU, let alone those who are minded to vote Labour, would welcome some of the possible specific ways of softening Brexit.

Even on the general principle, only slightly less than two-thirds of those who wish to re-join the EU say it is more important for the UK to be able to trade easily with the EU  than for the UK to have its own laws and regulations. Meanwhile, in the case of each of our specific possible ways of softening Brexit, support stands at only around a half, while a third or so think it is more important that the UK keeps its own regulations or controls the migration of younger people.

As we might anticipate opponents of Brexit are on balance opposed to each of these propositions. Consequently, among the mixture of supporters and opponents of Brexit who currently support Labour, for every one voter who takes the soft Brexit position towards our three specific propositions there is another who is opposed. Even on the general principle, only just over half say it is more important to be able to trade easily. In short, there is no clear consensus on the issue in Labour’s ranks.

There is one exception to this picture in the poll. When asked whether the UK should accept European qualifications for nurses or require all nurses in the UK to have a British qualification, two-thirds of re-joiners (66%) and three-fifths of Labour supporters (61%) say that the UK should recognise European qualifications. Perhaps the mutual acceptance of professional qualifications enjoys wider support – though equally it may just be that people are aware of the high level of vacancies in the NHS.

For the most part, Labour have avoided much discussion of Brexit in this parliament, keen as the party is to attract the votes of those who support the UK’s withdrawal. These findings might be thought to underline the wisdom of that strategy. But it does come with the risk that the party has not laid the foundations needed to ensure it has the support of its voters should a future Labour government attempt to pursue a softer Brexit. Of course, if many voters do not have firm and consistent views on the subject. they may well prove to be persuadable – but doing so will be a challenge that will face any attempt by Labour to pursue a softer Brexit.


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By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

One thought on “Do Labour Supporters Back A Softer Brexit?

  1. The choice of ‘electrical goods’ in this exercise is interesting. EU rules on electrical safety are set out in measures that follow what is often described as the ‘New Approach’. In particular, rather than set out detailed rules they list broad ‘essential requirements’ that must be observed (as demonstrated by the CE mark), and couple these with a reference to specific European standards. If products respect these standards they will be assumed to satisfy the essential requirements. Post Brexit the UK has carried this approach into its own legislation. The standards are made by European standards organisations, which are not EU bodies, and in which Britain, in the form of the BSI, remains a member. As such it is effectively obliged to adopt any standards that are adopted. Consequently, in this area the UK is already applying the same rules as the EU, and will continue to do so.Report

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