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

Olivia Bailey

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.

Olivia Bailey is Research Director at the Fabian Society

[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


  1. Rafal Zak

    Thank you Olivia for empowering article with statistic and polls sample about EU referendum.

  2. Mike Curtis

    There seems to be some confusion, not just here but in general, between the “case for a people’s Europe” and the “people’s case for Europe”. The major problem I see with Europe as it is presently constituted is not that it is specifically a “rich man’s club” but that it is specifically not a “peoples club” for any except a few. When we talk about cooperation within Europe we mean that politicians are talking to each other; when we talk about the benefits of being in Europe we mean the benefits to trade in goods and services. The only aspect that affects “ordinary” people is the movement of labour, which is designed to benefit employers more than employees and is anyway increasingly under attack. The reasons given for staying in Europe are in general that we all benefit from the trickle down from political cooperation and increased profit.

    Nowhere do we see the sort of lower level political cooperation that would really benefit people in general. There is very little cooperation between Trade Unions which would seem vital to counter the larger global corporations. There is very little contact between constituency parties so there is no hope of any unified left-wing policies coming from the grass-roots, even if (as we hope) such activity might increase nationally. One does not have to be an out and out conspiracy theorist to see that encouraging cooperation at the higher political and corporate levels while maintaining divisiveness at the lower political, employee level is mainly going to benefit the current crop of rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else.

    I believe that we if we want to build a “people’ Europe” then we are better starting from the current position rather than reverting to the outdated nation states, so my vote will be to stay in. However we should be building the “case for a people’s Europe” first so we all know what it is we are fighting for, then the “people’s case for Europe” which will be a step on the way there.

    • Peter R Smith

      The lack of cooperation between trades unions in different countries is precisely why we need the single set of workers’ rights that we currently have within the EU.

      The lack of cooperation between grass roots left parties is an area we, as activists, could do something about. The PES exists, it’s up to Labour (and Co-op) party members to set up activist groups to get that started. One day, maybe………

  3. Olivia Bailey

    The society will not be taking a collective position on the EU referendum, and this research will look at both the positive case for Europe and the areas where we need reform. I’d be delighted to discuss further if you get in touch ([email protected]).

  4. John Cartledge

    I am surprised and saddened by the implication that the Society takes a collective stance on this issue, and that it is a proper use of its resources to produce “a persuasive “people’s case” for Europe.” Olivia Bailey is entitled to hold and express any personal view she wishes, but not to assume that it is shared by Fabians at large. Of course the Society can and should marshal and present the arguments on either side, from a progressive perspective, but it must not presume that one camp or the other necessarily commands the suppport of Fabians at large.

    • Olivia Bailey

      The society will not be taking a collective position on the EU referendum, and this research will look at both the positive case for Europe and the areas where we need reform. I’d be delighted to discuss further if you get in touch ([email protected]).

      • John Cartledge

        Olivia : Thank you for taking the time and trouble to respond to my comment. But I fear that there is still a fundamental gulf between us.

        Whether or not “the society will not be taking a collective position on the EU referendum” in a formal sense, limiting your research to “the positive case for Europe and the areas where we need reform” seems to me to assume that British membership will continue and therefore to exclude any scope for exploring the powerful arguments against ongoing involvement in an institution whose primary purpose is to perpetuate the capitalist economic model.

        Narrowing the argument in this way will exclude the views of all those on the left (including, at least until recently, Jeremy Corbyn) who believe that the structures and ruling ideology of this institution are inimical to delivering the fundamental changes in British society that they are in politics to achieve.

        I do not necessarily share all of the views expressed in, e.g. its author’s quaint attachment to the Commonwealth. But I think that he is giving voice to a strand of opinion which deserves a place in Fabian discussions and publications, and I am sorry that your planned research does not appear to encompass this.

  5. Norman Rimmell

    Many Labour supporters, myself included, voted against EU membership in 1975 because we saw it as a ´rich man´s club´. I subsequently changed my mind, and am now an enthusiastic supporter, because the EU subsequently changed radically with e.g. its introduction of socially-progressive legislation such as the minimum wage. Some Labour supporters known to me still oppose EU on an outdated rationale and I think this is worth considering when considering what kind of approach should be made to the 27% of Labour supporters who (at the moment) intend to vote `out´.

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