by Paul Embery
Thursday, 16
January 2020
Debate
17:30

Leavers, not Remainers, deserted Labour in 2019

Outgoing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn oversaw his party’s switch from backing Leave to a referendum under his leadership. Credit: Getty

Did Labour really lose the support of as many Remain voters as it did Leave voters at the general election? That explanation is being bandied about by some within the party who are anxious to deflect criticism over the suicidal second referendum pledge and create the impression that things would not have turned out any better had Labour stuck to a commitment to honour Brexit.

I’m certainly no psephologist, but I’ve had a bash at analysing some data.

In absolute terms, the theory may be correct — just. A major YouGov poll carried out after the election showed that Labour managed to hold on to 79% of those who voted Remain at the referendum and then Labour at the 2017 general election, whereas the figure for Leave voters was just 52%.

Turning these percentages into hard numbers, and using evidence from the respected British Election Study (BES) suggesting that around 3.9 million Leave voters and 9 million Remain voters supported Labour at the 2017 election, we can conclude that, at the 2019 election, the party lost around 1.9 million Leave voters and — guess what — 1.9 million Remain voters.

But to concentrate only on absolute numbers is to miss the fundamental point. The proportion of Leave voters who deserted the party — standing at nearly half — was far higher than the 21% of Remain voters who went elsewhere. And when you consider that the slump in support for Labour among traditional working-class voters — the very kind who voted Leave in such high numbers — is part of a longer-term trend (millions among this group had abandoned the party even before the referendum) and a big factor in why it hasn’t won an election since 2005, you can see why it would be utterly wrong-headed for the party to view the haemorrhaging of Leave voters as in no way more significant than the loss of Remain voters.

Of the 54 seats the Tories gained from Labour, 50 voted Leave. If there is one statistic to sum up the imprudence of Labour’s position on Brexit, it’s that one.

Labour leaders and activists must therefore start being honest about why things have gone so disastrously wrong for the party, not just last month but for the past decade or more. Those who trot out glib explanations and ignore the wider picture in an effort to divert the flak are ultimately doing themselves and the party an injustice.