Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday, 8 June 2019

After the Peterborough victory, has Labour’s Brexit policy been redeemed?

In the 2016 EU referendum, Leave got about 61% of the Peterborough vote and Remain 39%. In 2017 Peterborough became a classic Labour Tory marginal where other parties were nowhere to be seen. It was exactly the kind of marginal that Labour’s policy of supporting Brexit is designed to keep. If you ask those who support Labour’s current Brexit policy, nearly all their marginals are like Peterborough.

The only thing that might confuse people is that Peterborough is not really part of the ‘North’, where if you believe some simplistic accounts is where all the Leave constituencies are. As I showed in my last post, this is something of a myth. If there is a UK divide, it is between Scotland, Northern Ireland and London where Remain has clear majority support and the rest of the UK, where there is a slight tendency for the Leave vote to be higher in the East than the West.

If Labour had lost in Peterborough, there were plenty of excuses ready. One would undoubtedly have been that by-elections are not like General Elections. But in fact the stakes were pretty high in Peterborough. If Labour Remain voters did not vote for Labour, there was the clear prospect of giving the party of Nigel Farage its first seat in parliament. This was not just of symbolic importance. As nearly all Remainers will know, the balance of voting in parliament is close. If you allow the Brexit party to capture a Labour seat, you make it harder to vote down No Deal and get a majority for a People’s Vote. If there was a time for Remainers to vote tactically for Labour, Peterborough was it.

In this sense you could argue that this by-election was for Remainers like a General Election, where the first concern is not to let the Conservative or Brexit party win. Does victory in Peterborough mean Labour's Brexit strategy is therefore working? The honest answer is no. The Liberal Democrats vote rose by a factor of over 3 compared to 2017. Labour won with just 31% of the vote. The main reason they won was that the Brexit vote split between the Conservatives and the Brexit party.

Will the Brexit vote split in a similar way in any future General Election, allowing Labour to win its Leave marginals with a much reduced vote? Maybe, or maybe not. We know the Conservatives will do whatever they can to avoid that outcome, and that may include cooperating with Farage so they do not fight in the same seats. It would be foolish indeed for Labour to assume that Brexit disunity saves the day for them in all their Leave marginals in any General Election.

The other important point is that the latest polling suggests that opinions have changed since 2016, with in particular many financially insecure voters turning away from Brexit. When you take that into account there as many marginals in Remain constituencies as Leave constituencies. These findings appear to be not on the radar of many supporters of Labour’s current Brexit policy. We have yet to see what would happen in these equally important Remain marginals.

Some supporters of Labour’s current policy can be very dismissive of polls. I find polls to be very informative, but only if they are carried out in an impartial way. This very recent poll described in the New Statesman by Christabel Cooper and Christina Pagel is more revealing about how the country as a whole currently feels about Brexit than the Peterborough by-election. It shows that since the 2016 vote, feelings about Remain have hardened with 70% of Remainers strongly preferring Remain to alternatives, while 24% of Leavers would prefer Remain to their least favourite Leave option.

This reinforces my point that the 2016 referendum is not a mandate for any particular form of Leaving. Any compromise deal is going to be disliked, and perhaps hated, by large numbers of Leavers and Remainers. (Leaving with No Deal will also be disliked by many Leavers as well as Remainers.) Another important result from this analysis is that among 2017 Labour voters, 72% of Remainers would mind “a lot” about leaving the EU, whereas only 25% of Labour Leavers mind “a lot” about Remaining. With as many marginals in Remain as Leave areas, why is Labour choosing to support a Leave option?


  1. The labour leadership is supporting some kind of leave option due to ideological dislike of the EU's approach to market competition. This approach limits their preference for nationalisation and other forms of state aid to industry. I am also not keen on the ordoliberal and neo-liberal fetishes about competition rules and baked-in austerity, but I do not think walking away from the Union is the answer to this. Reform from an internal position of strength would be better in my opinion.

  2. The Labour Party's position on Brexit has nothing to do with voters or gaining seats in Parliament. Labour supports Leave because Corbyn supports Leave and has always supported Leave, and as long as he is the Labour leader, he will not permit Labour to support Remain.

  3. As I understand it, Labour's position on Brexit was set out last autumn.
    Whilst the minutiae is under constant debate, and the rhetoric varies, the policy remains the same.

    Should it change? Possibly. But that's an issue for the Labour party to agree on a one member one vote basis.
    Such is democracy.

    Polls? Who do they ask? Is it the same people all the time?
    I've never been asked...


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