Local elections: Is Labour’s breakthrough in Leave areas really what it seems?

Labour may not have healed the electoral wounds of Brexit as much as its breakthrough in a string of Leave–voting areas at the local elections appears to show, new analysis by leading elections expert Sir John Curtice suggests.

Yet experts also suggest Labour may not actually need to prove its Brexit credentials as much as once thought – with Brexit support and its salience waning, and many voters unaware or un-supportive of its stance but backing it anyway.

Local election successes in Leave areas

Labour’s electoral successes last week included regaining Hartlepool council, a former party stronghold where it suffered a painful by-election defeat in 2021.

That shock Tory victory in 2021 had been attributed by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson to the Tory pledge to “get Brexit done“, in a town that had voted almost 70% to leave the EU in 2016.

Yet three years later Labour won political control not only in Hartlepool, but also in a “number of heavily Leave-voting areas where we had underperformed for a long time”, as party national executive committee member Luke Akehurst noted in a recent piece.

It won control too in Thurrock (72.3%), Cannock Chase (68.9%), Hyndburn (66.2%) Redditch (62.3%) and first ever wins in traditionally Tory Rushmoor (58.2%) and Adur (54.6%).

Meanwhile Labour made gains in Leave-voting North East Lincolnshire and Peterborough too.

Analysis for Sky News found that in wards where more than 55 per cent of people voted Leave, the Labour vote increased by almost 10 points since 2021.

Results seemingly show Labour shedding Remain image

The results are likely to be seen by many as a vindication of Labour’s efforts to reconnect with Leave voters under Keir Starmer following setbacks in the “red wall” in 2019 and Hartlepool two years later, from ruling out rejoining the EU or single market to pledging to end “immigration dependency”.

Sky News suggested that overall the “results show [a] Brexit shift”.

Two of Britain’s leading electoral analysts, Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, wrote in The Sunday Times that electoral breakthroughs in such heavily Leave-voting areas showed “many of Labour’s problems in the ‘red wall’ appear to have dissipated.

Luke Tryl, director of More in Common, said Labour were “making the biggest gains in the places where they struggled the most at the last general election”, which he said gave the party the opportunity to “run the board much more”.

Poll shows Labour support lower among Leavers who think party wants to re-join

The reality appears more complicated than voters now trusting and backing Labour on Brexit, however.

Psephologist Sir John Curtice noted in a recent piece of analysis of Redfield and Wilton polling for UK in a Changing Europe that fewer than one in five voters knows that Labour has accepted Brexit.

Twice as many say they think the party wants to rejoin as say it wants to stay out, whether they themselves are pro- or anti-Brexit,  and the rest either say Labour is unclear or are unsure of Labour’s stance.

Curtice said this “cannot be regarded as a success”, adding: “It seems that many voters are not clear where Labour stands on Brexit.”

Crucially, among voters who want to stay outside the EU, those who think Labour agrees with them are four times more likely to support the party than those who think it wants to re-join.

Meanwhile Brexiteers who think Labour does not have a clear policy on the issue are “19 points less likely than rejoiners to say they will vote for the party”.

Some on the left might worry that such negative or unclear perceptions of its stance could leave Labour vulnerable if the Tories, Reform or right-wing press ramped up efforts to portray Labour as a party seeking to reverse Brexit.

Uncertainty over Labour’s stance is widely seen to have damaged its fortunes in 2019.

Labour support strong regardless of stance

Yet such perceptions do not in fact seem to be costing Labour anywhere near as much overall support as many would have once once assumed, however.

One factor could be shrinking numbers of Leave supporters. While 52% voted Leave in 2016, the polls are only looking at the views of the 41% would do so now. That shrinks further to 38% when don’t-knows are included.

The group who want to rejoin is not only much larger, but also significantly more pro-Labour.

Rejoiners are actually twice as likely to believe Labour wants to rejoin. Curtice said voters’ lack of clarity overall “perhaps may be regarded as a signal of success by a party that has wanted to downplay the issue”.

Party support is remarkably high among pro-EU voters who think Labour shares their stance, at 61%.

Yet it is also very high even among pro-EU voters who know Labour plans to stay out, at 48%, and those who think it has no clear policy, at 44%.

“That apparent disregard of Labour’s stance by re-joiners that helps explain why, despite then party’s official stance on Brexit, Labour finds itself still being backed by a heavily pro-EU set of voters,” wrote Curtice.

A further factor could be that while Labour support is lower among Leave supporters overall, its Brexit stance does appear to have cut through to those Leavers currently saying they will vote for the party.

While the public are generally far more likely to see Labour as a ‘rejoin’ party, Labour’s current Leave-backing supporters are far more likely to see it as the opposite.

Brexit less on voters’ minds – but Labour can’t take Red Wall rebuild for granted

Such a strong Labour showing among voters with such varied beliefs could also simply show Brexit’s declining significance for how how people vote.

Christabel Cooper, director of research at Starmerite think tank Labour Together, told LabourList Brexit and Britain’s relationship with the EU had lost salience with voters since the last general election.

“All the research we have done, unless you deliberately prompt Brexit, people don’t talk about it.

“The idea that’s driving any behaviour ahead of the election, I find that very hard to believe.”

She added: “The 2019 result was actually quite misunderstood. People, certainly on the Conservative side, wanted to believe that a bunch of former Labour voters had irreversibly switched to the Tories on the basis of a socially liberal/conservative axis.

“Now that the economy is in a pretty dire state and the Conservatives are in complete chaos, it is not surprising that they are swinging back to Labour.”

As a result, she suggested Labour’s position on Europe is unlikely to leave it vulnerable at the election.

Yet Cooper suggested that while the Tories cannot bank on these voters’ support in 2024, neither can Labour bank on having won them back for good either.

What really happened in 2019 was that a group of voters turned “from solid Labour voters into swing voters” – which any party needs to keep fighting hard for.

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