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Fixing Britain’s relationship with the EU won’t be easy for Labour

The public is wary of returning to the divisive rhetoric that consumed Britain in 2016

Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty

Eight years ago the UK was building up to one of its biggest political decisions it ever made.  It is still feeling the aftereffects. People still hold on to ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ identities, although feel these less strongly than in 2016. A majority of people feel the decision to leave was wrong; just over a third believe it was right. Almost two-thirds of the public consider Brexit to be more of a failure than a success. In this election year it might be expected that the political parties will set out their vision for the future relationship, including in manifestos and campaigns.

Yet Brexit and relations with Europe are low down the public’s list of concerns. Since April 2023 the EU and Brexit has been 9th or 10th in the monthly poll of  top 10 issues seen by the public as most important in the UK. It fell out of the top 10 completely in September 2023 and is yet to reappear. 

Many people are wary of returning to the toxic referendum debates which divided them from family and friends. Six in ten (59%) say they would welcome a less heated debate about the UK’s future relationship with the EU in our politics and our society. Majorities of Conservative (61%) and Labour supporters (68%) as well as Remainers (76%) and Leavers (56%) favour this aim. Focus group participants said they avoided discussing Brexit with family, friends and colleagues, fearing re-opening disagreements and division.

While public attitudes on the urgency and relative importance of building a new relationship are mixed, there is broad agreement that it should be closer. Our research at British Future, including a survey of 2000 people and 12 focus groups, found support for a closer relationship in principle and across a number of policy areas. We found a majority (52%) would like the relationship to be closer. Only 1 in 8 (12%) said that they would prefer a more distant relationship, while 27% would keep the status quo (the remainder say they don’t know). 

As expected, support for a closer relationship is strongest among Labour supporters (68%) and Remainers (81%). However, only a quarter (24%) of Leave supporters would like the relationship with the EU to be more distant than it currently is, and slightly more (26%) would like the relationship to be closer; 43% of Leavers would prefer to keep the status quo. 

People support greater UK-EU collaboration most strongly on crime and counter-terrorism (68%) but also on trade (61%), and science/research co-operation (61%). Majorities also support close collaboration on defence, customs, international health, mobility and climate change.

Six in ten people support collaboration on immigration policies for work and study (61%), while 46%  would like collaboration over refugee resettlement. Remainers and Labour supporters are more likely to support collaboration, across all policy areas, by some margin. However, on each issue more Leavers support closer collaboration on these issues rather than less cooperation or keeping the status quo.  

Opportunities for educational and cultural exchanges have declined as a result of Brexit and Covid-19. Our research found people are interested in reviving activities such as school exchanges and town-twinning. But there is cynicism about who has benefited from these in the past: the public believes they should be inclusive, involving people from groups who have typically not been covered by exchange programmes. 

Giving any non-essential attention to the future relationship with the EU during an election year would seem a big risk for the Conservatives, given their support base among Leavers. However, as John Curtice recently pointed out at a UK in a Changing Europe event, Labour’s position in relation to its supporters is quite different: levels of opposition to Brexit are high among its traditional supporters, Conservative ‘switchers’ and young people who were not eligible to vote in 2016. What then are the opportunities and risks for Labour in raising the UK’s future relationship with the EU in an election year? 

The Party’s election campaign is likely to focus on securing the votes of Red Wall constituents who voted Leave and switched to the Conservatives in 2019. John Curtice has argued this group includes disillusioned Leavers. However, this does not necessarily mean they will feel positively about a closer relationship with the EU. There’s also no lack of clarity in Labour’s position: it dropped its opposition to the decision to leave in 2022: Keir Starmer has ruled out a return to the single market or customs union. While likely to stick to this position, stating this too strongly also runs the risk of losing votes of its traditional supporters who voted Remain and would like some kind of closer UK/EU relationship.  

Economic growth is an important factor in why Labour may need to talk about Europe. There are strong economic drivers to strengthening the relationship, with benefits improving the recovery of the same former Red Wall seats. Labour may see a closer relationship with the EU as the political price to pay to drive up skill levels, regional prosperity and living standards. In the short term Labour is likely to promote the home-grown economy and approaches such as buying British.

But post-election this might not be enough to achieve perceptible levels of growth.  A closer relationship with the USA would not seem likely given the prospect of Donald Trump’s return to the White House. In terms of public attitudes, the public already sees the relationship with the EU as considerably more important than with the USA.

Changes currently under negotiation with the EU may make it easier than in the past for Labour to argue for a closer relationship. The period leading up to a Winter general election is likely to see some shall steps relating to trade barriers, travel for education exchanges and research collaboration. As well as being likely to have visible outcomes, they include measures of most benefit younger people, who are more likely to support Remain. 

Youth initiatives have a prominent place in the EU’s programme and offer opportunities for UK involvement. Youth-focused policies and programmes are also likely to have support among the UK electorate: as an example, our older focus group participants often regretted the loss of free movement for young people more than for themselves and would be likely to support mobility initiatives for this group.

There are also opportunities for Labour to put forward its own values to shape a future relationship that the public might support. Our findings suggest that steps towards a closer relationship, especially relating to education and cultural programmes, are likely to gain greater public support if they have equality and diversity objectives. Focus group participants saw the EU as overly bureaucratic and non-inclusive; ethnic minority participants often described the EU and its institutions as non-diverse and felt it did not include them.

Labour is likely to gain support for reviving initiatives which benefit a wider demographic than in the past, and can help young people in difficult times.

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