How far can Corbyn ride the soft-Brexit wave?

by Luke Lythgoe | 02.08.2017

It turns out Theresa May was right. Despite our EU exit getting barely a mention on the campaign trail, new election data reveals voters genuinely did consider 2017 the “Brexit election”. Unfortunately for May this gave an unexpected advantage to her opponents, with polling showing Labour’s image as the “party of soft Brexit” was crucial to their election success. And yet this in turn could cause a headache for Labour’s naturally eurosceptic leader.

Analysis of election data from the British Election Study (BES), based on the responses of the study’s huge panel of 30,000 voters during the election campaign, showed Brexit was the single most important issue. Furthermore, more than half of all remain voters voted for Labour, compared with a quarter for the Conservatives and 15% for the Lib Dems. Polling also showed a strong correlation between those who voted for Labour and those who want a soft Brexit – defined here as a willingness to forfeit control over immigration in order to retain access to the EU’s single market.

But was their faith in Labour misplaced? One might expect a truly soft Brexit to include staying in the single market. But Labour has been ambiguous on this point: their 2017 manifesto pledged only “a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union”; and Jeremy Corbyn still refuses to condemn the Tories’ plans to drag the UK out.

There are plenty of explanations for this ambiguity, such as the need for a message which works in pro-EU cities and eurosceptic Labour heartlands alike. Corbyn himself has also been historically opposed to all things Brussels, a position which appears unchanged when you compare his lacklustre referendum performance (seven out of ten) to his stadium-storming election campaign.

Unfortunately for Corbyn, the prospect of continued single market membership was a big issue in Labour’s electoral favour. According to the BES data, Labour had nearly a 40 percentage-point lead over the Tories among voters who wanted full access to the single market. This was probably also an important factor in Labour taking nearly two-thirds of the Greens’ and a quarter of the Lib Dems’ 2015 votes.

Away from its hard-left leadership, the parliamentary Labour party remains overwhelmingly pro-European. A group of backbenchers is currently attempting to work with Remainer Tories to launch a guerrilla war on May’s repeal bill in a bid to retain single market access, at least during any transitional period – a plan backed by Labour frontbenchers such as Keir Starmer.

Corbyn would be wise to let these MPs carry the europhile torch for his party, just distancing himself from them formally so as to avoid alienating pro-Brexit voters. Yet he seems unwilling to do so, with an early Queen’s Speech rebellion over the single market resulting in the sackings and resignation of four Labour frontbenchers, each compelled to vote against the party whip by the strong pro-European views of their constituents.

It is therefore unclear whether Corbyn will be able to retain the goodwill of those pro-European voters who supported his party in June. The status quo is in Labour’s favour, with the Tories in turmoil and yet doggedly sticking to their hard Brexit line. But if another election were to be held soon – something Corbyn reportedly thinks is very much on the cards – then Labour’s ambiguous position will come under intense pressure from rival parties.

There is, however, a silver lining in the BES data for the Labour leader. Apart from the appeal of a soft Brexit, the other thing that particularly drew voters to the party was… Jeremy Corbyn.

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Edited by Bill Emmott