Labour's Brexit dilemma

16 Jan 2017


Since the Brexit vote there has been much talk of a changing political landscape. An electorate split down their leave or remain footing rather than the traditional party lines. Labour needs to take a side on the Brexit issue or face losing voters from all sides of the argument. Recent research from Labour’s own Fabian society suggests that the Liberal Democrats are gaining most from Labour’s stance which suggests a move to oppose Brexit is necessary.


The Fabian Society last week revealed that Labour may have lost around 400,000 voters to the Brexit opposing Liberal Democrats, more than double what the society estimated being lost to UKIP or the Conservatives. If correct it would suggest that the 65% of Labour voters in 2015 who voted for Remain are losing faith with the party’s approach to exiting the European Union.


Further evidence of this case was presented last Thursday in a council by-election in Sunderland. This area was famous on the night of June 23rd as the first hint that the country had voted in favour of Brexit. However on Thursday a Liberal Democrat councillor was elected on a staggering 41.5% jump in votes and crucially this was at the expense of Labour whose vote share fell dramatically. If this can happen in a pro-Brexit area then it suggests Labour could have a lot to fear from voters who could be rearranged down leave or remain splits.


Labour since the EU referendum have struggled to come to terms with the fact that voters they had in 2015 voted largely to Remain but voters they need to win for a majority most likely voted to Leave. As a result the policies and statements that leading figures in the party have made have appeared conflicted and confusing. Labour's voters however remain strongly of the opinion that Brexit is a bad decision. 


Labour’s Brexit minister, Keir Starmer, has suggested that the party aims to unite the public, accepting that the country is leaving the EU but wanting the best possible outcome from it. Sadly this simply won’t cut through with the electorate, especially if the electorate splits down its Brexit vote. If you continue to believe in leaving the EU then there are better parties that represent those views while if you want the country to remain the Liberal Democrats currently best represent that view. Labour needs to pick a side, maximise the votes available and become relevant in the debate once again.


Currently Labour does not have a voice in the debate. The media wants clear opinions as does the public; nuance doesn’t come across well with either. For a larger media presence and for better awareness of what the party stands for in the minds of voters, it will be necessary to pick a side. The current statistics and electoral evidence would suggest that Labour must first stem the flow of votes leaving for the Liberal Democrats before looking at taking any UKIP or Conservatives votes, which would require a stronger Brexit opposing voice. 


Sunderland is an interesting area to examine in this internal Labour debate. The Sunderland area has long been a Labour stronghold, as has much of the North East, but it was one of the most prominent and largest leave constituencies. After voting over 60% in favour of ‘taking back control’ Sunderland then faced much uncertainty over the Nissan plant in the area. Potentially influenced by this, the local newspaper polled its readers on the same EU question and found a strongly remain result. Now the area has elected a Liberal Democrat councillor with a large swing in vote share, does this indicate some regret and will this translate across the country?


The upcoming by-elections in Stoke and in Copeland will be further evidence in this debate. Should Labour, rumoured to be favouring a pro-Corbyn candidate, lose either or both elections then it is a message that the current trajectory is not working. Should the party lose and the by-elections see an increased Liberal Democrat vote then it becomes clear there is an issue that needs addressing.


Just as the time is approaching for the Conservatives to show their Brexit hand, the time is also coming for Labour to choose what their Brexit strategy is going to be. So far the middle ground has not worked and the trend does not look to be changing so it is decision time for Labour and choose which side it feels offers the biggest threat.


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