Monday, 1 July 2019

“In, out, shake it all about”: Why Labour should now oppose Brexit

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In a Stats for Lefties article late last year, I wrote the following paragraph:
“A Labour Party committed to overturning [Leave voters’] 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."
In the article, I argued that backing a 2nd referendum could lead to a large defeat for Labour; in addition, as readers may already know, I have previously opposed a second EU referendum on principle.

I have now changed my mind.

In this article I’ll explain why I think that Labour should now clearly and proudly promise that, if they win an election, they will renegotiate Brexit and then hold a referendum with two options: approve a negotiated Brexit deal or Remain in the EU. Labour would then campaign to Remain.

There are two aspects to my argument: the principled case for doing this (i.e. why it’s the right thing to do), and the electoral case (i.e. why it wouldn’t be a barrier to Labour winning an election). As this is a stats blog, let’s examine the electoral case first.

The Electoral Case for backing a 2nd referendum

There are many people who would agree that Labour should oppose Brexit and back a 2nd referendum, but who are nevertheless worried that backing such a referendum would make it much harder (or impossible) for Labour to win an election. I think that these concerns were justified a year ago, but circumstances have now dramatically changed, and Labour must change its position in response. There are 4 reasons why Labour must urgently back a 2nd referendum, in my view.

1) The European Elections show that Remainers are willing to leave Labour

The EU elections should be a wake-up call for the left. Buoyed by a wave of anti-Brexit sentiment, the Liberal Democrats defied the polls and managed to outpoll the Labour Party in a national election for the first time since the general election of December 1910, nearly 109 years ago. As I’ve written before, the Liberal Democrats were collapsing – yet they are now surging in the polls, averaging 20% in June thus far (+12pts), their highest poll average since before the 2010 general election.

The European elections saw Labour’s vote share collapse by 11pts, and that collapse went overwhelmingly in the direction of anti-Brexit parties. YouGov, whose final European election poll accurately predicted the Lib Dem surge, estimated in their final survey that amongst 2017 Labour voters who voted in the EU elections, a majority – 51% – voted for anti-Brexit parties. 31% voted for Labour, and just 15% supported pro-Brexit parties. Even more worryingly, Labour won just 22% of the vote amongst 18-24 year olds, with the Green Party winning the youth vote with 27%.

Looking at the results themselves also shows a clear trend. The results were declared by council area, as were the EU referendum results, allowing for direct comparisons. The table below shows the average change in vote share for Labour in local council areas, grouped by how pro-Leave that area was in 2016. I have presented 3 tables: England, Wales and Scotland.

As you can see, in England, Labour's vote share fell by more on average in heavily Remain areas.

In Scotland, the Labour vote fell by a consistent amount (falling by 15-17pts) with no distinction (by and large) between more pro-Remain and more pro-Leave areas.

In Wales, Labour's vote declined by a consistent amount (falling by 10-13pts), with no distinction (by and large) between more pro-Remain and more pro-Leave areas. The only exception to this was Blaenau Gwent, which was the only council area to vote Leave with 60%+ of the vote in 2016 - in that council area, Labour's vote share fell by 22pts. This single data point should not be taken as indicative of a greater trend.

All of this tells us one thing: Remain voters are prepared to walk away from Labour, and without Remain voters, Labour cannot win. The most recent poll from Survation (the most accurate pollster in 2017) suggests that of the 12.9m people who voted Labour in 2017, 70% would vote Remain in an EU referendum tomorrow.

2) Labour is losing far more Remainers than Leavers in polls

Since March 2018, Labour’s average poll share has been falling. Up until February 2019, this fall was only marginal – between April 2018 and February 2019, Labour’s monthly poll average was consistently 38-39%, only slightly down from its 2017 GB vote share of 41%. But in February this year, Labour’s support dropped to 35% and has continued to decline ever since. So far in June, the party has polled an average of just 22%, tied with the Brexit Party.

This decline has occurred amongst both Remainers and Leavers, but it is far more pronounced amongst Remainers.


Labour’s average poll result amongst Remain voters in June was 30% (-25pts since 2017), whilst amongst Leavers it was 12% (-12pts).

The substantially higher decline amongst Remain voters is worrying, because Labour voters are overwhelmingly pro-Remain. Ultimately, losing more Remain voters than Leave voters means losing more voters overall, and we cannot afford to let that happen. Labour must give these voters what they want and oppose Brexit if it wants to win them back.

3) Only No Deal will satisfy Leave voters

One of the outcomes of the Brexit deadlock is that views have become polarised, with Remain voters only willing to accept remaining and Leave voters only willing to accept a No Deal Brexit. Opinium regularly asks voters what they think the government should do about Brexit; the monthly average of these polls is shown in the graph below.

Amongst Remain voters, the results were:

Amongst Leave voters, the results were:

This same point is also demonstrated by a hypothetical Opinium poll which asked voters how they would vote in a referendum between “No Deal” and “Remain”. The poll showed that 52% would vote Remain, and 48% would vote for No Deal; excluding Don’t Knows, an astounding 92% of Leave voters said that they would vote for No Deal.

Finally, a poll from ComRes in April showed that the only outcome remotely acceptable to a majority of Leave voters was leaving with No Deal.

By contrast, a majority of Remain voters said that revoking Article 50, a long delay to negotiate a customs union, a referendum between May’s Deal and Remain and a Leave/Remain referendum would all be acceptable options.

In short, the only "Leave" option acceptable to Leave voters is No Deal, which Labour has been actively opposing and will never implement. Labour's own policy (a long delay to negotiate a customs union) is widely considered unacceptable by Leavers. Attempting to win over Leave voters will be incredibly hard, as the only way to win their support is to back No Deal - something that Labour must never do. Focusing on Leave voters at the expense of Remain voters is not a viable strategy for Labour.

4) Public opinion has shifted – and this may well have changed the dynamic in marginal seats

The final point to make is about marginal seats. In my 2018 article, I demonstrated that – based on Chris Hanretty’s 2016 estimates – most of the 54 Tory-held Labour target seats voted Leave, as did most of the 46 Labour-held marginals where the Tories are in 2nd place. I wanted to take another look and see how public opinion might have changed.

One thing that many Remainers have argued is that the public has changed their minds, and to an extent this is true. The average of EU referendum voting intention polls in June (with changes from 2016) showed “Remain” on 53% (+4) and “Leave” on 47% (-4). So, in the spirit of keeping an open mind, I decided to look at what impact these UK-wide shifts in voting intention (+4pts for Remain compared to 2016) might have at a constituency level. 

When calculating seat estimates for general election polls, I take the changes in GB vote share estimated by the poll and apply those changes to the parties’ vote shares in each seat. I took the same approach here, adding 4pts to the estimated 2016 “Remain” vote in the various target seats and subtracting 4pts from the estimated “Leave” vote.

The results amongst Tory-held Labour target seats were as follows (with changes from 2016):

Pro-Leave 29 (-12) 

Pro-Remain 25 (+12)

The results amongst Labour-held target seats where the Tories are in 2nd were as follows (with changes from 2016):

Pro-Leave 25 (-11) 

Pro-Remain 21 (+11)

Thus, whilst Labour/Conservative marginal seats are evenly split, they are arguably far less pro-Leave than in 2016.

The Principled Case for backing a 2nd referendum

I think Britain should remain in the EU. I voted Remain, campaigned for Remain and wanted Remain to win. But for the past year, I’ve argued that respecting the result of the EU referendum is the proper and democratic thing to do. Remain lost the 2016 referendum, and in a democracy I felt that meant we should leave the EU. I thought that the best way for Labour to do this was to reject May’s deal, campaign for a general election, win that election and negotiate a new Brexit deal that retained close links to the EU whilst ultimately leaving it. 

However, in large part due to the Tories’ incompetent handling of Brexit and the extended period of uncertainty and deadlock that has followed, this is no longer possible. The Tories’ refusal to hold a general election has left us facing the highly likely prospect of a No Deal Brexit in October, a prospect that was never on the ballot paper in 2016 and which simply must not be allowed to happen.

The increasingly likely prospect of No Deal, created by May’s shambolic handling of Brexit and the Tories’ determination to enact any kind of Brexit, has left many people in a state of uncertainty and anxiety. Many EU citizens have no idea if they will even be able to remain in Britain after October, people dependent upon life-saving medicines don’t know if they’ll be able to access those medicines if No Deal occurs and businesses have no clue whether their costs will soar in 4 months’ time. If No Deal does happen, there will be food and medicine shortages, as well as an economic crisis. Labour must do everything it can to stop this from happening.

In this context, my personal preference would be to revoke Article 50 and stop Brexit right now. There will, of course, be a great many objections to this, but I would rather deal with the fallout from a position of certainty and stability for EU citizens and people dependent upon the life-saving medicines that are under threat from a No Deal Brexit. But I recognise that this is not a popular opinion. The balance of opinion on the “Remain” side of politics leans towards holding a 2nd referendum as the best way to remain in the EU, and a 2nd referendum is more likely to pass in Parliament than revocation of Article 50 (as the indicative votes process showed). In addition to this, the argument that we should double-check whether voters really do want Brexit now that we know what it means is a strong one – I have never been able to find a satisfactory response to this argument.


In short, I still believe that Britain is better off remaining in the EU. All attempts at finding a compromise on Brexit have failed, leaving us facing a binary choice between leaving with No Deal or remaining in the EU. In this context, I’d prefer simply revoking Article 50. But I believe that if this is not possible, then Labour should unambiguously support a second referendum with an option to Remain, in which Labour will campaign for remaining in the EU. This is, in my opinion, not just the electorally pragmatic thing to do – it is also, fundamentally, the right thing to do.

Having said that, I could be wrong. I recognise that this is a very difficult decision for Labour to make, and I’ll still support Corbyn whether he adopts this policy or not. But I believe that the best thing that Labour can do right now is to promise unambiguously that, if we form the next government, we will give the voters the final say on whether we leave the EU (with a deal) or remain in the EU – and that we’ll campaign for Remain in that referendum.


  1. I agree with basically everything in this article, but negotiating a Brexit deal and then campaigning against it in a referendum? The EU would simply laugh in our faces.

    1. Not so. The whole object is to attempt to get a deal. If Labour gets a deal through with the EU then they can hold a referendum on the basis that now the public actually has a choice. The last referendum was ambiguous to say the least, this would remove any ambiguity and give the populace a real choice.

    2. That's leftie logic for you. How they say it with a straight face I've no idea. You should have watched Question Time this week - hilarious.

  2. Had Labour embraced, for example, leaving the political structures but staying in the economic structures of the single market and customs union, it might have carved out its own "compromise" policy and won over both Remainers and Leavers. By embracing neither that nor anything else, it has lost both. I'm not sure there is any way back.

    1. This is literally Labour policy and has been pretty much forever. It's also one the EU accepts. I don't know how people are so poorly informed about this.

  3. This makes no sense. Negotiate an agreement then campaign for it to be rejected? What's the point? Leave supporters wouldn't see the outcome as legitimate. It would be like Johnson promising to seek a new deal, with a referendum where the choices were his deal or no deal (and he campaigned for no deal). Would any Remain supporter take that seriously?

  4. A government negotiating a deal then campaigning against their own deal would be absurd and quite rightly be seen as acting in bad faith.

    It's always telling that Remainer plans to overturn the election involve some sort of completely transparent trickey such as this idiocy and Tony Blair's three option referendum plan.

    The 2017 policy worked for Labour. Nothing has changed other than some liberals get antsy. There is no point in burning bridges with either side until a General Election is called.

  5. The contradictions of the revisionist left are unravelling. Perhaps the shadow chancellor should email George Osborne and request the return of the Little Red Book. He may yet put himself on the revolutionary path.

  6. I think there's a danger of over-interpreting the euros and ignoring the locals here. The locals show that Labour's vote is probably a lot more sticky than we see in the euros in part because the Lib Dems have "come-out" as being a right wing party, hence why a lot of Tory losses there turned into Lib Dem gains.

    I also think there's a problem with the analysis in that it assumes all the arguments have been made. The constructive ambiguity gloss on Labour's Brexit position isn't actually the strongest argument in its favour. That honour goes to the fact that Labour can legitimately say that it is neutral with respect to *every* Brexit outcome: No Deal should be avoided because it will cause entirely unneccessary pain, but it also won't be the end of the world if the Tories take us there because Labour will always be in a position to negoriate us out of any mess that occurs.

    In fact it's safe to say that the only reason Brexit is a problem one way or another for Leavers and Remainers alike is the fact that we left the Tories in power to implement it, and unlike Labour, there is no Brexit result which doesn't tear their electoral coalition apart, as we can see in the locals, where Remain Tories moved to the Libs, or the Euros where Leave Tories moved to the Brexit Party.

  7. Revoke article 50 and labour will be the architects of betrayal of a democratic referendum for a generation losing 48% or more of the population every bad decision by the EU every argument every budget contribution will be laid at their door continuously. Another referendum by what margin will it justify overturning the first how will it ever pacify a leave voter how will it ever look anything other than London centric politics ignoring and patronising the rest of the UK. When you are in a tight spot where you've waded through crap to get to that point however uncertain you must plough on forward you cannot tell an electorate your life is bad now but that is your lot it's just too hard to do anything else we can't deliver change we are just incapable of doing it. The electorate have spoken and been ignored they are now shouting start listening before they start screaming ie voting for evermore extreme alternatives to the current system.

  8. Except for the fact that its clear now nearly 3 yrs later that the Leave Campaign was based on a carefully constructed issue of lies. There is no 'having our cake and eating it' and they don't 'need us more than we need them'.
    I can show you oodles of evidence that the leaders of the Leave campaign promised the the UK would say in the single market.

    Sorry but the evidence shows that the majority in England and Wales have swung to Remain because they know that Brexit will be a disaster and that the EU is NOT responsible for the problems they face - including immigration from her parts of the EU since all the necessary legal tools to control intra-EU migration already exist in EU law and its just that the UK has never enacted them. Try moving to Belgium or Austria from the UK and you will soon find tha its very hard to get accepted as a resident and without such you nor your family can access healthcare, schooling, social services and if you have been there >3 months you will be deported back to the UK.

    There is also the fact that Brexit will result in the break up of he UK union with strongly pro-EU Scotland and NI leaving to rejoin the EU inside 5-10 yrs. Labour as a pro-Brexit party will never win more than one seat in Scotland again and without significant numbers of Scottish seats Labour can never gain a majority to form a government. Labour will also lose significant seats in the south and especially in London. In an analysis taking the EU election result by FPTP constituency it was clear that both Corbyn and Thornberry would have lost their seats to the LibDems in a GE.
    If Labour continues as pro-Brexit then it will become a radicalised minority northern party.

    1. The question shouldn't however be how bad Brexit will be: it doesn't matter what we say, under the Tories Brexit was always going to be a shambles.

      The question is what Labour says about it. I personally think that reply should be: Afraid of Brexit? Don't worry. Whatever happens, Leave or Remain, Labour can fix it so we're all better off.

    2. If Brexit occurs (as is most likely) then Labour is finished because it has enabled the Tories all along.

    3. Labour wasn't in power and never had the votes to challenge the Tories.

      There is no universe where that transates into "enabling" outside of right-wing concern trolling. Worse, this means putting the blame everywhere except where it belongs: at the feet of the Tories whose electoral coalition rests on a bed of racism. Brexit and every single issue which follows from it rests at the feet of this *one* incontrivertible fact.

  9. Like some of your other comments point out, Labour renegotiating a deal and then campaigning against it doesn't sound right to me. I could see the party having a neutral stance, officially, and individual MPs campaign as they wish. That would make much more sense. Also, have you done any analysis with the marginals to show how they would go if the Tory and Labour poll changes were mapped onto them, now that the Brexit Party is around? Maybe that's worth considering. The Tories now have competition for the brexit vote, which wasn't really the case in 2017 as many seats didn't have a ukip candidate. What would be the marginal seat wins if Labour adopted a remain stance and stayed at 2017 level, but the percentage of Labour losses to BP as seen in the Eu Elections, according to polls, was Labours loss, plus the Tories lose the predicted amount to the BP? That would be itneresting

  10. Given the article you have written today that pretty much all Brexit voters are (for good reason) now "no deal" supporters you now want a gerrymandered referendum that you know you will win.

    This is the type of utter dishonesty of the remoaners who keep telling us "NOBODY voted for no deal". I have news for you, the vast majority did and "no deal" will have to be on the ballot or I'll tell you what you don't want to hear.

    That Brexit voters will vote for the Brexit Party to take us out without a deal if A50 is revoked on a false referendum.

    You can argue all day what leave meant, but it certainly doesn't mean "remain".

    Why not have a referendum to clarify what "leave" means, or are you frightened of the answer?