Progress | Centre-left Labour politics
Brexit protest

Remainers are a greater threat to the Labour vote than Leavers

This article is part of a series of articles written by candidates for the Progress strategy board elections. The publishing of this article is not an endorsement of the candidate. You can read Christabel Cooper’s candidate statement here

Taking a stand for our ‘Remainer’ grassroots is not just the right thing to do, it makes political sense, explains Christabel Cooper

Two weeks ago I was one of the estimated 670,000 people who took part in the People’s Vote march alongside many of my fellow councillors from Hammersmith & Fulham. Back in January we became the first council in the country to call for another referendum both because we believe that leaving the European Union will be disastrous for Britain, but also because we were reflecting the views of our residents. Hammersmith & Fulham saw one of the biggest swings in the country to Labour in the local elections in May, in part because our whole-heartedly pro-EU platform was popular in a borough which overwhelmingly voted ‘Remain’.

In other parts of the country which voted heavily for ‘Leave’, elected Labour representatives (most of whom backed Remain) have been much more wary of adopting a clear anti-Brexit stance. On the face of it, this hesitancy is understandable; it reflects the perennial democratic tension between a politician’s personal conscience and the duty to try and represent the views of the voters who put her into office. Yet Labour voters overwhelmingly backed Remain – there are twice as many Labour voting Remainers as Leavers. Back in February 2017, Professor John Curtice found that even in the areas where the overall vote was for Leave, a majority of Labour voters backed Remain.

And while Labour obsesses over losing its Leave voters, recent polling data gathered by YouGov on behalf of the People’s Vote campaign shows that of the people who voted Labour in 2017, Remainers are almost as likely to say they will vote for another party in next general election as Leavers (16 per cent of Remainers intend to switch, 17 per cent of Leavers intend to switch). Because there were many more Labour Remainers to start with, this means that in total, Labour is losing approximately twice as many Remain voters as Leave voters.

Where Remainers have decided to abandon Labour, Brexit is clearly a factor. 56 per cent are now intending to vote for the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats, with only 10 per cent planning to vote for the Tories and none for Ukip. Unnoticed by many commentators, the Liberal Democrat’s vote share has quietly crept up from 6.9 per cent in July 2017 to an average of 9.6 per cent in September 2018. The overall numbers are still unimpressive but worryingly, most of their extra votes are coming from Labour; over the same period, Labour has seen its vote fall from 43.4 per cent to 37.7 per cent and is now regularly behind the Tories in the polls. In tight marginal constituencies, Labour Remain voters switching could be enough to let the Tories in. It may seem counter-intuitive, but this is the case even in areas which voted heavily for Leave, and constituency-level polling is likely to confirm this.

It is true that for many years, Labour has been losing support from the demographics which were most likely to vote Leave – older people, non-graduates and those who live in towns rather than cities. This trend has been exacerbated, rather than halted, by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and explains the decision to tread warily on Brexit. But trying to win back these voters by embracing Brexit is counterproductive – both electorally (because Labour Remainers outnumber Labour Leavers) and for practical reasons. The economic consequences of a poor Brexit outcome will hamper the ability of a Labour government to invest in regional infrastructure and other vital services that will support people who live outside big cities. There are other ways to appeal to these voters and Labour has started to make constructive, non-Brexit related attempts to do this, developing policies to revitalise the high street and producing the acclaimed “Our Town” political broadcast. The work that Lisa Nandy is doing with the thinktank she helped found – the Centre for Towns – will also be vitally important.

By focusing almost entirely on Leave voters in the last two years, the Labour leadership has taken its Remainers for granted, making the dangerous assumption that the Liberal Democrats will be indefinitely tainted by their role in the coalition government. There also seems to be a general belief that with a few hysterical exceptions, Remainers are mostly prepared to live with Brexit, whereas Leavers are about to start rioting in the streets if they are denied their prize. In fact, a recent report from What the UK Thinks shows that 53 per cent of Remain voters say they ‘very strongly’ identify with the Remain cause, compared to 46 per cent of Leave voters who ‘very strongly’ identify with Leave.

Labour’s position of constructive ambiguity served us well in the 2017 general election. 18 months later, time is running out to find a solution to the ‘mad riddle’ of Brexit and Labour’s failure to give a definitive answer is costing us support. With Parliament so divided, it is almost certain that the votes of Labour MPs will make a crucial difference to whatever outcome which emerges from this debacle. Those MPs who represent Leave-voting areas but still believe that leaving the EU will be damaging for all their constituents, should not only have the courage of their convictions but also look beyond the lazy mythology which says that Leavers are the only voters they should worry about and recognise that Labour-voting Remainers are actually the bigger electoral threat. In the last few days, a large Survation poll for Channel 4 has given Remain a substantial lead over Leave of 54 per cent to 46 per cent. The astonishing size of the People’s Vote march was simply a visible demonstration of what the polling evidence is telling us, that many Remainers are highly motivated and that they are an electoral and political force to be reckoned with.

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Christabel Cooper is a candidate in the councillors section of the Progress strategy board elections. You can read her candidate statement here

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