What Do Labour Voters Want A Labour Government To Do About Brexit?

Posted on 2 July 2024 by John Curtice

If the polls of voting intention in the general election are at all correct, then by the end of this week Sir Keir Starmer will be the new tenant of 10 Downing St. If so, then it is not expected that the new government will seek to overturn Brexit. In line with the stance adopted by the party ever since Sir Keir became Labour’s leader four years ago, the party has repeatedly said during the campaign that while it hopes to improve the Brexit deal that was negotiated by Boris Johnson, a Labour government would not join the EU single market or customs union, let alone contemplate applying to rejoin the EU.

But how far does Labour’s stance on Brexit reflect the views of those who intend to vote for the party on Thursday? The latest Redfield & Wilton poll for The UK in a Changing Europe, conducted during the middle of the election campaign, provides us with a timely opportunity to examine the attitudes, hopes and fears on Brexit that Labour voters will be bringing with them when they make the journey to their local polling station.

Not least of the reasons for Labour’s acceptance of Brexit was a belief that the party needed to reconnect with the many former Labour voters who voted for Brexit in 2016 and then backed Boris Johnson in 2019. However, attitudes towards Brexit have changed since 2019, and over the last two years in particular only one poll has reported that more would vote to stay out of the EU than would back leaving in any referendum held now. This is reflected in Redfield & Wilton’s latest poll which, after those who said don’t know are left aside, estimates that 61% would vote to rejoin while 39% would back staying out. This represents a two-point swing towards rejoining since the company’s previous reading in April and, indeed, is the highest level of support for rejoin that the company has registered since August of last year.

Labour voters are, however, markedly more likely than voters in general to say they would vote to rejoin. As many as 78% say they would vote to rejoin, almost exactly matching the equivalent figures of 77% for the Liberal Democrats (whose party’s official stance on Brexit in the short term at least is not that different from Labour’s) and 73% for the Greens.  In contrast, only 44% of Conservative supporters and just 25% of those intending to vote Reform express the same view. Although there may not be much of a divide between the parties in terms of their policy on Brexit, the coalition of voters each has assembled at this election hold very different views on the subject.

Of course, we might feel that while Labour’s voters would have preferred the UK to remain part of the EU, they do not necessarily want to see the issue reopened. However, it is far from clear that this is the case. Over half (55%) say that the issue of Britain’s membership of the EU has ‘not been settled and should be reopened’, while only one in three (33%) say that the issue is ‘settled and should not be reopened’. Meanwhile, as many as 69% believe that there ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ should be another referendum on Brexit within the next five years, while less than one in four (23%) are opposed. Indeed, no less than 84% of Labour rejoiners would like another referendum.

Still, Labour might feel that while their supporters might want a closer relationship with the EU than the party is offering, at least they are likely to back any specific steps that might be taken over the next five years towards softening Brexit. Indeed, in one instance where Labour have made a specific proposal – the mutual recognition of professional qualifications – this does appear to be the case. As many as 61% of Labour supporters back the mutual recognition of nursing qualifications, while just 29% are opposed. But perhaps we should bear in mind that the enthusiasm for the idea might not be so great for less popular professions.

Certainly, as we have previously reported, it is far from clear that Labour voters are necessarily keen on specific ways in which Brexit might be softened. For example, they are almost evenly split on whether it would be better for Britain to follow EU regulations on electrical goods and thereby avoid checks at the EU border (45% are in favour) or whether Britain should have its own regulations and accept that its exports to the EU will be checked (40%). The balance of opinion on attitudes towards a similar question on food, where Labour are specifically in favour of making a veterinary agreement with the EU, is only a little more favourable – 47% are in favour, 37% opposed. Even on the general issue of whether it is more important for the UK to have its own laws or to be able to trade easily with the EU, while 50% back the latter view 38% place a higher priority on the UK having its own laws.

One possible reason for the apparent reticence among Labour voters for these relatively small steps is that, in contrast to the general question of whether the UK should rejoin or stay out of the EU, the potential cost, that is, the loss of the control over aspects of our own affairs that was promised by the Leave campaign, is more explicit. Moreover, it is possible that the EU might seek changes to the Brexit deal that it would like to see but for which there is limited support in Labour’s ranks, such as a youth mobility scheme of which 47% of Labour voters are in favour but 39% are opposed.

A future Labour government, therefore, may not necessarily find the task of persuading its supporters of the merits of any measures that would soften Brexit any easier than the challenge of persuading them of the advantages of a more radical (albeit more comprehensive) approach to the UK-EU relationship

This blog also appears on the UK in a Changing Europe website.


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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.

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