If Jeremy Corbyn genuinely believes, as he has repeatedly claimed, that the Labour Party’s policy should reflect the wishes of its members rather than just its leaders, then he arguably has a funny way of showing it – at least when it comes to Brexit. Professor Tim Bale explains why.
2 January 2019
Our ESRC-sponsored Party Members Project has just surveyed 1,034 Labour Party members together with a representative sample of 1,675 voters. Our survey of Labour’s grassroots clearly shows that Corbyn’s apparent willingness to see the UK leave the EU – a stance he has recently reiterated – is seriously at odds with what the overwhelming majority of Labour’s members want, and it doesn’t reflect the views of most Labour voters either.
Some 83 per cent of Labour members we surveyed voted Remain in 2016 – a much higher proportion, incidentally, than the 60 per cent of 2017 Labour voters who did the same. And it is clear, firstly, that the vast majority of those members have no regrets about doing so and, secondly, that they would do so again in another referendum – something that they want the party and its leader, Mr Corbyn, to endorse. It’s also clear that if he doesn’t, then a fair few of them would consider leaving the party.
Some 73 per cent of current Labour voters think – in hindsight and irrespective of what they themselves voted in 2016 – that the UK was wrong to vote to leave the EU. That proportion rises to 89 per cent among Labour members – and is a view shared, too, by 31 per cent of the small minority of members who did vote Leave in the Referendum.
It may not be too surprising, then, that most Labour members – like most current Labour voters – would like to see the party fully support holding a new referendum on Brexit. But the size of the majority that wants to see that shift is nonetheless striking. Some 72 per cent of Labour members (compared to 57 per cent of current Labour voters and 61 per cent of 2017 Labour voters) want Corbyn to fully support a new referendum on Brexit.
If such a referendum – a ‘People’s vote’ as some call it – is held, it is clear which way Labour’s rank and file would go. Some 88 per cent of them say their first preference in a three-way referendum would be to remain in the EU, with only 3 per cent saying that it would be to leave the EU with Mrs May’s deal and only 5 per cent saying it would be leaving with no deal. The figures for current Labour voters are 71 per cent, 8 per cent, and 12 per cent respectively.
We also presented Labour members and voters with a series of binary, two-option referendums. In what for most of them would be a Hobson’s choice between leaving on Mrs May’s terms or crashing out with no deal, then 27 per cent say they’d boycott the vote altogether, although some 46 per cent of members confess they’d take the deal (compared to 42 per cent of current Labour voters). More predictably, perhaps, a referendum which forced a choice between Remain and no deal would see 88 per cent of Labour members (compared to 71 per cent of current Labour voters) opting to stay in the EU – the option that 36 per cent of the small minority of members who voted Leave in 2016 would now take too. Similarly 88 per cent of members (and once again 71 per cent of current Labour voters) would vote to Remain if the other option presented to them in a referendum were leaving on Mrs May’s terms.
An insight into why (apart from their underlying support for EU membership) Labour’s grassroots members are such strong supporters of Remain perhaps comes from their answers to some of the other questions we asked them. First up, they do not regard immigration as a big issue: asked to say which of a number of issues they though were among the top three facing the country, some 96 per cent of members (like 86 per cent of current Labour voters and, interestingly, even 73 per cent of all voters) left immigration and asylum out of their top three. Second, a whopping 89 per cent of Labour members (compared to 65 per cent of current Labour voters and only 45 per cent of all voters) are convinced that leaving the EU without a deal would have a negative impact on the economy in the medium to long term. Third, a similarly impressive 82 per cent of Labour members think that the warnings of the severe short-term disruption that no deal might cause are realistic – something only 35 per cent of the electorate as a whole (although 58 per cent of Labour voters) think is the case.
Labour members are, by their very nature, partisan – and most of them are still fans of Mr Corbyn more generally: his ratings among the general public might not be very high (61 per cent of them think he’s doing badly as Labour’s leader compared to just 24 per cent who think he’s doing well) and they’re not exactly stratospheric among voters who supported Labour at the 2017 general election (41 per cent of whom think he’s doing well compared to 45 per cent who think he’s doing badly); but he’s still in positive territory when it comes to the party’s membership, some 65 per cent of whom think he’s doing well compared to 33 per cent who think he’s doing badly – with the figures for those members who backed him against Owen Smith in the 2016 leadership contest running at 79 per cent-20 per cent. It is not necessarily surprising, then, that some 58 per cent of Labour members reckon that Mr Corbyn could probably get a better Brexit deal than Mrs May – far, far more than the 13 per cent of the electorate (and more than the 40 per cent of current Labour voters and 29 per cent of 2017 Labour voters) who think the same.
Nor, by the same token, is it surprising that Labour members are more supportive of the stance that the party has taken towards Brexit than are voters as a whole or, indeed, current Labour voters. Of the latter, only 30 per cent say they support Labour’s stance – compared to 47 per cent of members. Only 29 per cent of members were prepared, notwithstanding their own Europhilia, to say that they actually opposed Labour’s stance, although some 24 per cent were ambivalent or said they didn’t know. Still, it’s quite something when, on the issue that 61 per cent of Labour members regard as the number one issue facing the country, only just under half of them actively support their party’s stance on it.
It’s also quite something that nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of Labour members put their leader’s failure to endorse or campaign for a new referendum down to the fact that he actually supports Brexit – something that those who supported Owen Smith’s kamikaze challenge to Corbyn in 2016 are particularly likely to believe. Meanwhile, a third (34 per cent) of Labour members reckon that he’s worried about the party losing the support of Leave voters. Just over one in ten (12 per cent) hold on to the hope that Corbyn is waiting for the right time to come out in favour of a new referendum – with equal proportions believing that his failure so far to do so far is down to a principled objection (12 per cent) or genuine indecision (9 per cent).
But whatever Labour members reckon are Corbyn’s reasons for not getting behind a referendum, the Labour leader does need to think carefully about whether his ambiguity on the issue is quite as cunningly clever as many commentators seem to believe. That’s not simply because of psephological research that suggests being seen to somehow facilitate Brexit will harm rather than help Labour’s electoral chances. Nor is it because his stance on the issue directly contradicts his supposed desire to lead a democratic party. It is because, if Corbyn carries on like this, then Labour risks losing some of the members on whom it’s relying to give it the activist edge over the Conservatives at the next general election. Getting on for a third (i.e. 29 per cent) of Labour’s rank and file oppose the stance that the party has taken on Brexit – and over half (i.e. 56 per cent) of those who oppose it told us that it has caused them to consider quitting (a proportion that is equivalent to around 88,000 members).
In sum, our survey suggests Labour’s membership is overwhelmingly in favour of the UK remaining in the EU and badly wants a referendum to achieve that end. It also suggests that Labour voters, while not as keen as the party’s members on either count, are in the same camp. Labour’s grassroots clearly hate Brexit, and although many of them still love Corbyn, he might not be able rely for much longer on their support for him trumping their opposition to leaving the EU. As a result, our research is bound to increase the pressure on Labour’s leader to get off the fence.
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