Saturday, 24 November 2018

Should I stay or should I go? Labour’s Brexit dilemma

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With the government having finally put its proposed Brexit deal on the table, and with a Parliamentary vote imminent, the Labour Party and its 257 MPs face a dramatic test of their Brexit position.

Despite the vocal demands of the “People’s Vote” campaign, Labour has declined to back a second EU referendum, and has instead prioritised a general election so that Labour can form a government and negotiate a Brexit deal that meets its “6 tests” for a good deal. As part of this strategy, Labour will vote against the Tories’ Brexit deal - the idea is that if the Tories’ Brexit deal cannot pass the Commons, then the government will be forced to call a general election to obtain a mandate for May’s deal. Labour can then win the election and renegotiate a new deal. If Labour cannot obtain an election, then all options (including a second referendum) remain on the table.

The nuanced approach of Labour’s policy has often left pro-EU campaigners frustrated and angry – many ask why Labour doesn’t simply back a second referendum or support stopping Brexit outright. The reasons for Labour’s complex strategy, however, are equally complex, and in this article we’ll try take a look at the statistics that illustrate Labour’s dilemma.

Part 1: Play to Win 

On the face of it, Labour’s base is mostly anti-Brexit. In the most recent Survation poll (the most accurate pollsters in 2017), the pollster found that 65% of those who voted Labour in 2017 would vote ‘Remain’ in a second EU referendum. Other surveys have found that 90% of Labour members support ‘Remain’, and that 78% of Labour members back a second referendum on Brexit. With the Brexit vote having gone to Leave by only a 4pt margin (52-48) in 2016, and with public opinion having slightly shifted towards Remain since 2016, you might think Labour’s path is clear: it should follow the advice of its voters and members, adopt a ‘Stop Brexit’ (or second referendum) manifesto pledge and win the votes of the pro-EU 48%. Simple. 

But the problem Labour faces is this: the House of Commons isn’t elected through a national popular vote. It’s elected through individual constituencies. And on the question of Brexit, the vast majority of those constituencies lean more strongly one way or the other than the nation as a whole. Within England, Wales and Scotland, just 18 constituencies recorded a vote that matched the national figure (52% Leave, 48% Remain). 350 gave a higher vote share to Leave (on average, 60% for Leave), whilst 264 gave a higher share to Remain than the national figure (on average, 59% for Remain). And if Labour wants to become the governing party, especially with an overall majority, it has to win dozens upon dozens of constituencies where the voters backed Leave. 

In total, Labour needs to gain 64 new seats (and retain its current ones) to win an overall majority. The smoothest path runs through the 76 seats where Labour is behind the opposition by less than 10 percentage points. 42 of these voted Leave (with a 59% Leave vote, on average), and 36 voted Remain (with a 61% Remain vote, on average).

This in itself shows Labour’s challenge – it cannot win a majority without taking seats that went heavily for Leave AND that went heavily for Remain. However, the challenge is greater than it looks. Of those marginal seats, 23 of the 36 pro-Remain seats are held by the SNP or Plaid Cymru, and taking seats from the two nationalist parties doesn’t increase the number of anti-Conservative MPs in the Commons. Labour could take every single one of these seats and it wouldn’t make any difference: the Tories would still form the government. 

The seats that matter most are the 54 Conservative-held Labour target seats. And of these 54 seats, a full 41 voted Leave (with an average Leave vote of 59%), and just 13 voted ‘Remain’ (with an average Remain vote of 57%). These 54 seats are listed in the table below.

The upshot of it all is this. Labour voters might be pro-Remain. Labour members might be pro-Remain. And the national vote in 2016 may have been close. But in most of the marginal seats that Labour must win in order to form the next government, the voters leaned heavily towards Leave in 2016.

A Labour Party committed to overturning those people’s votes and keeping Britain in the EU against their wishes might well win a handful of votes from the Liberal Democrats, and take some seats from the SNP, but the price might well be losing to the Tories in dozens upon dozens of marginal seats. That doesn’t sound like a risk worth taking. Labour’s nuanced and unifying Brexit policy, that respects the referendum whilst reaching out to Remain voters, may well be the only way for the party to win in these marginal seats. After all, it’s that strategy that saw Labour win 42% of the popular vote in England in 2017 – its highest share of the vote since 1997.

Part 2: The Magnificent Six 

But Labour’s electoral challenge extends beyond their marginal target seats. There are a total of 54 Labour-held seats where the party leads its opponent by less than 10 points, and to win power Labour must also hold all of these constituencies (or all but a few of them). Of these, Labour is being challenged by the SNP in 6 of them, meaning that regardless of the result the seat will elect an anti-Conservative MP. Of the other 48 Labour-held marginal seats in England and Wales, the Tories are in second place in 46, with the other two being Labour/Lib Dem marginals. And most of these (36, to be exact) voted Leave.

But how do we know that these seats would vote Conservative if they want Leave? After all, many have voted for Labour for decades. Unfortunately, those long-held loyalties are crumbling under the pressure of a motivated and active pro-Brexit electorate. 

Take Stoke-on-Trent-South. The seat voted Labour from 1950 (when it was created) until 2017, when it elected 26-year old Jack Brereton as its first Conservative MP. Stoke-on-Trent-South was one of six Labour-held seats lost to the Conservatives in 2017, all of which had one thing in common: they all voted Leave by big margins in 2016. Stoke-on-Trent-South itself voted Leave with 71% of the vote.

In many more pro-Leave seats, Labour came close to losing. In Ashfield (71% Leave), Labour’s majority fell from 9,000 votes to 441, with the Tories increasing their vote share by 21pts; in Dudley North (71% Leave), it fell from 4,000 votes to just 22 votes; in Bishop Auckland (61% Leave) it fell from 3,500 votes to 502. The story is the same in dozens of other Labour seats; the table below shows all 69 Labour-held seats where there was a net swing to the Tories in 2017. As you’ll see, every single one of them voted Leave.

The six lost Labour Leave seats, and the fact that every single Labour seat that saw a swing to the Tories in 2017 voted Leave, are a warning for Labour to stay away from a ‘Remain-at-all-costs’ position. Leave voters have shown that in heavily pro-Leave seats, loyalty to Labour is less important to them than their desire for a swift British exit from the EU. The potential gains of a ‘Stop Brexit’ standpoint (gaining 15 Tory and Lib Dem seats) are outweighed by the potentially devastating downsides (losing 36 Labour seats to the Tories). The potential gains are minimal, and the risks are very high. Far from proving to be electoral gold dust, a Stop Brexit stance could be destructive for the Labour Party. 

Part 3: Every Little Bit Hurts

The final point to make about Labour’s dilemma has already been implied above, but it is worth restating it specifically: two-thirds of Labour voters might be pro-Remain, but a third of them are not, and it is those Leave voters who are making Labour competitive. Losing them, especially losing them to the pro-Leave Tories, would be devastating.

The recent 20,000-sample poll by Survation (the large sample gives us more accurate demographic breakdowns) showed that Labour is currently attracting the support of 51% of Remain voters. However, this large support from Remain voters constitutes just 23% of the overall popular vote. Even assuming that those backing Labour who didn’t vote in 2016 are pro-EU (these non-voters are currently delivering 6 points’ worth of vote share to Labour), this still leaves Labour on a mere 29% of the popular vote, less than in 2015. Labour only gets to 40% (1pt ahead of the Tories) when you take into account Leave voters, 26% of whom are voting Labour. These ‘Labour Leave’ voters constitute a sizeable 12 percentage points of the overall popular vote.

Thus, Labour’s 40% share of the vote is made up of three groups:

  • People who voted Remain in 2016 (22.8pts)
  • People who voted Leave in 2016 (11.6pts)
  • People who didn’t vote in 2016 (5.9pts)

Some Remain campaigners argue that Labour could win on the votes of Remainers alone, as they made up 48% of the total votes in the 2016 referendum. But this is a misreading of the situation. At present, a full quarter (26%) of ‘Remain’ voters are voting for the Conservatives – the party driving us towards a Hard Brexit. If they will vote for the Conservatives even now, then Brexit clearly isn’t their priority or their main objection to the Labour Party, and adopting a 100% Remain position will not win them over.

The remaining 'Remain' voters are backing the Lib Dems, Greens or SNP. Together this accounts for 9 percentage points of vote share overall. So if Labour ignored (and lost) its pro-Leave voters, adopted a ‘Stop Brexit’ position and managed to get ALL pro-EU Lib Dem, Green and SNP voters, they'd still only get to 38% overall - less than they are polling now.

So: if Labour loses Labour Leavers (12pts) to the Tories, and the Tories retain Tory Leavers (25pts), Tory Remainers (12pts) and new Tory voters (2pts) they would be polling at 51%. If Labour gains all other Remain voters, keeps Labour Remainers (23pts) & new Labour voters (6pts) they'd be polling 38%. 

Simply put: the numbers don’t add up. Labour cannot win the popular vote without winning at least some Leave voters, and if the party drives away all of its Leave voters, then a landslide Tory majority (the sort predicted in 2017) will be the result.

Now, some will say that it’s unrealistic to assume that all Labour Leave voters would leave if Labour adopted a Stop Brexit position. And that’s true. But the point of the stats above isn’t to predict what would happen – we don’t know. It’s to illustrate that in order to win with a Stop Brexit position, Labour would need absolutely everything to go right. It would need to retain all its Remain voters, keep all of its new voters and gain almost every single non-Conservative Remain voter. And even if it did all of that, and retained at least two-thirds of its Leave voters (after promising to overturn their referendum vote) Labour would end up with a 3pt lead in the popular vote – barely within the margin of error of its current polling.

Given the massive risks, and the small gains possible even with everything going right, is it really worth alienating half the voters for a poll lead barely bigger than what we have now?


Referendums are really tricky for the Labour Party. For the 118 years in which it has existed, questions of constitutional reform have never been a fundamental, existential priority for the party. Unlike the Liberals, it has never championed proportional representation; even with a massive majority in 1997-2005, it left the House of Lords virtually unchanged; and when the whole of the UK last voted on a major constitutional issue (the referendum on the Alternative Vote) the party remained strictly neutral. Whilst the party has taken many stances on constitutional issues, they have often been cautious (such as on electoral reform), have only introduced limited changes (such as the incremental devolution for Wales and London) or simply dropped the policy entirely (regional devolution for England). Other issues have consistently been regarded as more important.

There has been one recent exception: Scotland.

In the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, the Scottish Labour Party sided completely with the unionist side of the argument. The party became dedicated to the question of keeping Scotland in the union, with former Labour PMs and Chancellors becoming key spokespeople of the 'No' campaign. And even as the electorate became more and more polarised, Scottish Labour decided to firmly align itself solely with the 55% of the voters who voted ‘No’ to independence.

The response of the electorate was overwhelming: in the 2015 election, Scottish Labour lost 40 of its 41 seats. In 2016, it fell behind the Tories. And in 2017, despite gaining seats, the party ended up third in the Scottish popular vote and all but 1 of its MPs have tiny majorities. 

Hopefully, UK Labour will learn from what happened to the Scottish Labour Party and steer clear of being defined solely by its position on a polarising constitutional question. If it doesn’t learn from the past, the much-predicted landslide Tory majority we heard so much about in 2017 may well turn out to have been merely delayed, and not prevented. Let's hope we never have to find out.


  1. A really good & thought-provoking article. If only politics was as simple as others say... Jack, London

  2. Well Played Jeremy,Not as Easy as Everyone Thinks

  3. YouGov's MRP analysis suggests that many more Labour & target constituencies now line up for Remain than they did in 2016. In fact, all Labour constituencies, including the ones that voted leave, would now support a "final say" referendum.

    What happens to your per-constituency analysis when you use that instead of the estimated 2016 constituency breakdown?

  4. Also, polling (that to be fair was carried out after you wrote this post) suggests that the Labour leave voters are much more loyal to Labour than they are to the idea of leaving the EU. Hence the headlines that predict Labour to drop behind the LibDems if the party enables Brexit.

  5. The article claims that Labour attracts 51% of Remain voters giving it 22.8% of popular vote. It then goes on to say that if it attracted all the remaining Remain voters this would add 9% of popular vote. How can 51% of Remain be 22.8% of vote and 49% be 9%? This is a misleading muddle.

  6. It says “all other remaining Remain voters”, i.e., excluding Tory Remainers, mist of whom the writer reasonably assumes would be ideologically opposed to a left wing Labour vite.

  7. This doesn’t make sense . The tragedy is many voters I talk to are not fussed about leave or remain but they are adamant that their lives are terrible. If labour pursues Brexit they’ll get in but then never be forgiven by the board majority for failing to protect them from joblessness and huge economic problems. I’ve personally met conservatives who would easily vote for Corbyn if he was remain. It’s the leavers that have changed their minds . Over and over I hear the same thing what will labour do for us . I don’t like Corbyn I do t like May. It’s serious labour needs to show it’s an opposition an honest party against corruption not a facilitator of a mad policy.

  8. Except the article fails to mention that if Labour backs any form of Brexit it loses huge numbers of remain voters - such as myself - a labour councillor, lifetime labour voter and member. Survation poll suggesting labour share of vote falls to 26% quoted here

    1. Are you telling me that you support Neo-Liberal Europe more than you do the Labour Party, because if you do then you ignore everything Labour stands for.

      Europe is not the social democratic paradise you probably think it is, just think about how they treated Greece.

      Professor Mark Blyth explains the pitfalls of staying in Europe and how the Euro is destroying peoples lives in Europe.

    2. Well I am a LP member that voted Remain and Labour will not be losing my vote if it backs Brexit (in fact if there were another referendum I would change my vote to Leave).
      I find it baffling that so many apparent Labour supporters keep threatening to abandon Labour if they back Brexit.
      Why do you keep prioritising Brexit over everything our country is going through domestically, under Tory austerity policies. People are dying for crying out loud. Isn't that enough? If we stay in the EU things will stay exactly as they are - and things are bloody awful now!
      In my 50yrs I have never ever seen our country in such a terrible state, where we show such complete disregard and contempt for our own people.
      Plain to see that for you its much more important to stay tied to a neoliberal capitalist instituition, for what... A free trade agreement, free movement?
      I don't know how you call yourself a life long Labour supporter and not in fact support Labour values? And how is it, lifelong labour supporter, that you are quite prepared to withdraw your support, knowing full well this will lead to (most likely) another Tory victory at the ballot box, a hard Brexit, our country becoming a Tax Haven, total privatisation of the NHS more and more austerity, more deaths, more foodbanks???

  9. The trouble with debates like the EU is that people only hear the Tories side of the debate. Most think that Europe is some sort of social democratic paradise when they are in fact now 30 years out of date, it has like this country and since the days of Thatcher transformed into a corporate paradise that only serves the interests of big business. Poverty is now a big problem everywhere where the richest don't care whether people live or die.

    This video of a European academic spells out in everyday language what Europe is really like:

    1. Isn't Lexit a chimera though because the Lexiters' desired policies (which they use as justification for leaving the EU) also violate WTO rules?

    2. You of course need to elaborate what you mean by violating WTO rules.

      From my point of view we need to understand that we in Britain do not trade so much with Europe and the rest of the world but are net importers of other countries finished goods.

      With that in mind and the absolute knowledge that the world can't go on indefinitely raping the earth a new paradigm is needed and perhaps all these trade agreements need reviewing anyway.

      The other factor is that perhaps we should consider the meaning of a self sustaining economy, which would of course require government intervention and fall foul of most trade agreements anti competive rules. Which I believe would be a good thing, meaning isn't it time we stopped the farce of competition and started collaboration with other countries in the world.

      We also have our own sovereign currency which means we can directly intervene in our own economy, whereas those in Europe are artificially tied to EU regulations on the Euro, and treat each country like it were a household, that does not apply to us here in Britain.

      All that stands in our way here is Neo-Liberal politicians.

  10. A really good article. Can I republish it on Labour Heartlands website with backlinks and credit to the author?