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Labour’s In campaign must build a ‘people’s case’ for Europe

Britain will soon decide on the future of its relationship with the EU. Whether or not David Cameron succeeds in his renegotiation efforts, the outcome of that decision is still far from clear. Taking an average of 16 national polls,...


Britain will soon decide on the future of its relationship with the EU. Whether or not David Cameron succeeds in his renegotiation efforts, the outcome of that decision is still far from clear. Taking an average of 16 national polls, NatCen has calculated that 45% of people would vote to remain in the EU, 39% would vote to leave, and 16% don’t know. And a GQRR poll published last week estimates that 13% of the electorate have a ‘fair to good’ chance of being persuaded to change their mind either way. The In campaign is in the stronger position, but in this referendum it is all to play for.

As Alan Johnson prepares to launch Labour’s In campaign, it’s clear there will be a battle for the support of Labour voters, too. While ‘remain’ has a lead among Labour supporters, a significant number – currently 27% – will vote to leave, and 16% remain undecided. [i]

With tight margins in the national race, Labour voters could determine the outcome of the referendum. So what should Labour’s In campaign bear in mind as they get underway?

The importance of Jeremy Corbyn

Given the Labour leader voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975, confirmation that he will join Labour’s campaign to stay in the European Union is welcome news for those who want to remain. Party leaders can have decisive impacts on the outcome of referenda, because voters who are unsure or undecided look to their leader for a ‘cue’.

Polls have already suggested that this trend will continue in to this referendum. When GQRR asked voters who they were most likely to trust when making arguments about Europe, the only Labour figure who scored better than Corbyn was Gordon Brown, with 45% of people saying they’d trust what he said. Jeremy Corbyn is trusted by 38%, 6 percentage points higher than Alan Johnson or Tony Blair.

A recent YouGov and Economic and Social Research Council study has shown that when Labour voters were presented with Jeremy Corbyn’s advice to them to vote to remain, they were 7 points more likely to say they would do so. The same study showed that if Corbyn had a change of heart and recommended a vote to leave, overall public support for ‘remain’ would fall by 2 percentage points.

In such a tight race, Jeremy Corbyn’s full-throated support could make the difference.

Focus on the base

There are significant social divisions in people’s attitudes towards Europe, the most significant of which are age and class. Younger people are more likely to want to vote to remain, with just 25% wanting to leave as opposed to 46% of older people. 33% of social grades ‘AB’ want to leave, as opposed to 46% of ‘C2’ and ‘DE’. [ii] British Social Attitudes data shows that 78% of graduates want to remain, compared with 35% of those with no qualifications.

So what does this mean for Labour’s campaign? Demographically Labour voters are younger rather than older, which must account for a significant proportion of Labour’s ‘remainers’. But Labour voters are also more likely to be working class, a group more sceptical about Europe. It is arguably this group, Labour’s traditional ‘base’, that Labour’s In campaign should focus their efforts on trying to persuade.

Build the People’s Case for Europe

If a key task of Labour’s In campaign is to persuade working class voters, then their most crucial challenge in the coming months is getting the message right. In a national debate that has been dominated by the dry ‘business case’, they must set out ‘the people’s case’. Whether it is rights at work, or the quality and affordability of goods and services, Labour’s In campaign must start from the kitchen table rather than the board room. In a referendum where turnout is crucial, and where the Leave campaign are more motivated to get to the polls, it is Alan Johnson’s job to give Labour voters something to vote for. That will also be important in helping to avoid the campaign becoming simply a referendum on immigration.

In the coming months the Fabian Society will be undertaking research in this area, contributing to the formulation of a persuasive ‘people’s case’ for Europe. The whole Labour movement must engage with the fact that this referendum could be won or lost on the back of the progressive vote.

[i] Taken from an average of five polls (ICM, Survation, YouGov, ComRes, GQRR), What UK Thinks & GQRR

[ii] Taken from an average of five polls (ICM, Survation, YouGov, ComRes, GQRR), What UK Thinks & GQRR

Olivia Bailey

Olivia Bailey is director of social policy at Public First and former head of domestic policy for Keir Starmer. She was previously deputy general secretary at the Fabian Society


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