Why the UK Labour Party holds the key to Britain’s EU referendum

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Alan Johnson is a potentially influential pro-EU campaigner for the Labour Party. [Chatham House/Flickr]

If the latest polls are right, Britain looks increasingly likely to vote to leave the EU on 23 June. A number of polls put ‘Leave’ between two and five percentage points ahead of ‘Remain’, writes Adrian Pabst.

Adrian Pabst is senior lecturer in politics at the University of Kent and visiting professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po). Among his recent publication is an essay collection entitled Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics (I.B. Tauris, 2015).

At this stage in the campaign, the national mood seems to be in favour of a leaving the EU and the momentum is with the Brexiteers. Prime Minister David Cameron, who heads the ‘In’ campaign, is fighting for his political life and his place in the history books. He could be the leader who won an unexpected majority in the 2015 General Election but lost the popular vote on Europe a year later.

On balance, it is still likelier that the UK will opt for the status quo, as polling is notoriously unreliable. Virtually all opinion polls are done very quickly over a few days and via the Internet or by phone with an unrepresentative population sample – mostly those who don’t actually vote (more about them later).

By contrast, the British Social Attitudes survey conducts face-to-face conversations over several months with over 3,000 respondents. In its 2015 edition, the survey found that while 65% of Britons are sceptical about the EU and want to see its power restricted, only about 30% support Brexit.

So why are we facing the very real possibility of a Brexit? Well, it could be that the pollsters have once more got it wrong. In Britain this happened just before the 2014 referendum on Scotland’s independence, when one poll put the pro-camp ahead. In the end, Scotland voted 55-45 in favour staying in the UK. Similarly, most pollsters before the national election in May 2015 predicted a hung parliament with no party commanding a majority, but Cameron’s Conservatives defeated Labour comprehensively.

But the Leave campaign seems to have cut through with undecided voters who represent about 15% of the entire electorate. Messages about taking back control (especially over Britain’s borders) and defending the people against unelected elites appear to resonate widely. Even on the economy – widely seen as the strongest asset of the Remain campaign – ‘Outers’ neutralise ‘Inners’ by promising to abolish Brussels’ red tape and sign new trade deals outside the EU.

In short, Cameron’s strategy of relying on economic and national security arguments does not seem to work – not to mention the fact that his party is deeply divided and a clear majority of the grassroots Conservative party backs Brexit. These are typically people aged 55 or over, and 70-80% of that age group actually turn out to vote at elections.

That is where the Labour Party enters the equation. Labour’s support is concentrated among people living in cities, public sector workers, many Black, Asia and minority ethnic communities as well as the young – especially students. With few exceptions, these groups are overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU.

The key problem is voter turnout: at the last national election in May 2015, less than half of the 18-35 year-olds went to the polling station, whereas for the over-55s the figure was 75%. At the risk of caricature, a typical pro-EU Labour supporter appears to be someone who is very vocal on social media and takes part in opinion surveys but doesn’t bother to cast their vote. Thus the Brexiteers have a clear advantage that could prove decisive come June.

None of this is helped by Labour’s new leadership, whose feelings about the EU are at best lukewarm. Through their Marxist ideology, they view the EU as a capitalist conspiracy against workers and as a vassal state of the imperialist USA. The party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been practically silent on the EU referendum, maybe because he hopes that the Conservative government will fall if a majority vote to leave.

Labour’s hopes – and those of the Remain camp – rest to a significant extent on Alan Johnson, the head of the “Labour In for Europe” campaign, who worked as a postman before entering politics. His charisma and passion are infectious and have the potential to mobilise many Labour supporters who might otherwise stay at home.

The key challenge for Labour is to acknowledge people’s cultural concerns about the EU and the impact of immigration on indigenous people following the Union’s eastern enlargement in 2004. This is particularly true for the millions of blue-collar workers who used to vote for Labour but left after 1997 when the party’s embrace of economic and social liberalism alienated more socially conservative working class communities.

The above-mentioned British Social Attitudes survey attests that a majority of Britons are worried about the levels of immigration from other EU countries. Johnson is uniquely positioned to say that the Labour government got it wrong by not making use of EU instruments such as transition controls to limit the number of migrants (as Germany did). In this way Labour can regain some popular trust and persuade its former supporters to vote In.

If the Labour campaign can target young people while also appealing to traditional Labour voters, then it can help swing the result in favour of remaining in the EU.

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