Expert View

For Corbyn, backing Brexit means ballot box disaster

by Peter Kellner | 06.02.2018

Peter Kellner, former president of YouGov, writes an open letter to Jeremy Corbyn following a poll suggesting Labour risks losing votes at the ballot box if it’s seen to back Brexit.

Dear Jeremy,

As you know better than almost anyone else, at some point you will have to jump off the fence. The moment will come when you must either back or oppose the government’s plan for Brexit. A new poll by YouGov makes clear that a pro-Brexit stance could be electorally catastrophic for Labour.

The survey was commissioned by campaign group Our Future Our Choice and Youthonomics, a new think tank. YouGov questioned an unusually large sample of almost 5,000, and asked them how they would vote under two different scenarios: first, if Labour and the Conservatives both supported Brexit, while the Liberal Democrats opposed Brexit; second, with Labour switching to an anti-Brexit stance, while the Tories and Lib Dems retained their current stance.

The table below shows the main figures for Labour support, with YouGov’s two previous polls combined to show Labour’s support when YouGov ask their standard voting intention question with no reference to Brexit.

(Note that these figures show percentages of the total electorate, including people who don’t know or wouldn’t vote. This is why all the figures below are somewhat lower than those in conventional voting intention tables, where don’t knows and would not votes are excluded from the calculation.)

For Corbyn, backing Brexit means ballot box disaster

At first blush, these figures suggest you are wise to stay on the fence. You seem unlikely to gain votes by jumping off it: your choice is to lose a little support by opposing Brexit or lose a lot by backing it. However, your fence-sitting option won’t last forever. You will have to make a choice; and this poll makes clear that an anti-Brexit stance would secure you far more votes than a pro-Brexit stance.

The reasons are clear. Supporting Brexit would lose you shed loads of Labour supporters who voted Remain in 2016, while gaining you very few extra Leave voters. In round numbers, YouGov’s figures equate to three million lost Remain voters, compared with only 300,000 extra Leave voters. If you insist on Labour siding with the government on Brexit, you risk losing more than two million votes to the Lib Dems: people who would back the one substantial UK-wide pro-EU party.

In contrast, if you decided to fight “Tory Brexit”, you would lose and gain votes in roughly equal numbers – just over one million Leave supporters who voted Labour last year would shift elsewhere, while Labour would gain around 600,000 Remain voters, as well as a fair number of those who have attained voting age since the 2016 referendum.

A word of caution. Hypothetical questions are seldom totally accurate. How people behave when faced with an actual choice is not necessarily the same as the way they predict beforehand. However, the difference between the two scenarios is too large to ignore. I cannot be sure of the precise difference in votes between the two options when you are forced to make the choice; but I am certain that Labour will be far more popular if it ends up supporting continued membership of the EU than backing Brexit.

If anything, these poll figures seem likely to underestimate the difference between the two options. Suppose, as now looks likely, the negotiations with Brussels end up either breaking down, or with a deal that is plainly bad for jobs, trade and prosperity. Then, by employing your great campaigning skills to fight Tory Brexit, you could gain even more support than these poll figures indicate. In contrast, lashing Labour to the mast of an SS Brexit that is holed below the waterline could see your party consigned to the vasty deep, from where votes, like spirits, never reappear.

Good luck!

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

3 Responses to “For Corbyn, backing Brexit means ballot box disaster”

  • Not just voters, several friends of mine who are long-standing party members have cut up their membership cards since learning that the Labour Party would not support a second referendum . They will go perhaps to the Liberals. I myself am feeling my loyalty stretched. I have been overjoyed to find at last a radical thinking labour movement. I don’t want ‘New Labour’ I want a real Labour in power of the same quality of the Attlee government.
    But this should include having power and influence within the EU. Please try to remain.

  • A brilliant article by a first class intellect

    Dear Mr Corbyn

    We will have no hesitation in backing our MP Anna Soubry as opposed to your prospective candidate in Broxtowe who failed by 800 votes last time, bizzarly a labour supporting family are now inkling towards an MP who is more on the left than you Mr Corbyn and your party, a jobs brexit is insulting and a contradiction in terms……

  • The bonus of following the ES advice is that it may it may well split the Tory parliamentary party. The Tory Party membership is now so small that one can ignore it.

    Another possible bonus is that it may decide Nigel Lawson to stay longer in France and cut down visits to the UK: a somewhat ironical decision but we would all benefit.

    Brian Hanks