Labour's anxiety about being outflanked by Ukip and the Conservatives on the Leave side, while justified, may be blinding it to a more urgent problem in its electoral base, warns John Curtice. Tim Farron's Liberal Democrats are setting out a stall for pro-Remain voters that Labour supporters are steadily trickling, if not flocking, towards.

The EU referendum was, of course, hugely disruptive for all of the parties other than Ukip. Only the party then led by Nigel Farage was able to persuade anywhere near all of its supporters to vote the way it recommended. As we noted in the previous edition of Juncture,[1] in Labour’s case this meant that while around two-thirds of Labour supporters voted to Remain, the other third backed Leave.

Even so, it was possible that the referendum might have amounted to nothing more than a brief and temporary interruption to the regular rhythm of the country’s electoral politics. However, because of the majority vote to leave, this disruption might continue. The debate about what shape Britain’s relationship with the EU should take once we leave looks set to dominate the political agenda for at least the next two years, and maybe well beyond, with those who voted Remain largely favouring a ‘softer’ Brexit than those who backed Leave.[2] If political debate is indeed now to be all about Brexit, an important question follows: will voters increasingly look to support parties that reflect their view of what Britain’s relationship with the EU should be?[3] And if that does happen, what impact might such a development have on Britain’s party system?

All about Leave

Brexit has already given risen to plenty of angst and division among Labour MPs. Although no more than a handful of them backed Leave in June last year’s referendum, their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, demanded that they should vote in support of the legislation that the supreme court insisted parliament had to pass before the UK government could give formal notice of its wish to leave the EU. In the event, no less than 52 Labour MPs, including three who had been members of the shadow cabinet, defied the whip and voted against the bill at third reading. Never can a governmental defeat in the courts have caused an opposition so much trouble.

Those who backed Jeremy Corbyn’s position argued that, despite the qualms of many Labour MPs, the party had to be seen to fall in behind the majority vote to Leave.[4] After all, around seven in 10 Labour MPs represent constituencies in which a majority voted against staying in the EU.[5] Moreover, given that the profile of the core Leave voter – older, less well-off and with few if any educational qualifications[6] – seemingly matches the profile of the ‘traditional’ Labour voter, the party needed to signal that it recognised their stance. Otherwise, these voters might opt to defect to Ukip, whose new leader, Paul Nuttall, has indicated that working class voters are firmly in his sights.[7] If Mr Nuttall were to achieve his aim, he might not only scupper Labour’s already seemingly remote chance of winning the next election, but also break the already relatively tenuous bonds between Labour and its traditional working-class base.

However, Ukip are not the only party with hopes that taking a clear stance on Brexit will deliver an electoral dividend. So too are the Liberal Democrats, whose leader, Tim Farron, believes the country should hold another ballot on the proposed terms of Britain’s withdrawal before it heads out of the EU exit door. Their stance has already, it appears, earned them some tangible reward. Last October the party snatched pro-Remain Richmond away from its incumbent pro-Leave Conservative MP, Zac Goldsmith. If that byelection was a sign that Brexit could now become one of the more important dividing lines in Britain’s electoral politics, it would suggest that Labour should start worrying about the possibility that its many pro-Remain voters could switch to the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, this could present an even greater risk than the possibility that the much smaller group of Leave-voting Labour supporters might sail off and back Paul Nuttall.

The tortoise, not the hare

Analysis of YouGov polls – by far the most numerous, and the only ones that in recent months have systematically reported the general election voting intentions of Remain and Leave supporters separately – suggests that this could well be the case. According to these polls, Labour’s already weak position has slipped yet further. During last August and September, the party was credited with 30 per cent of the vote on average. By January of this year its support had fallen to just 26 per cent – a figure that suggests the party is now less popular than at any time since the disastrous 1983 general election. Meanwhile, over the same period Liberal Democrat support has increased from 8 per cent (the same as it was at the 2015 general election), to 11 per cent.

Now of course, the Liberal Democrats’ progress looks more like that of a tortoise than a hare; it is certainly not enough to suggest that, thanks to Brexit, the party is clearly on course to pose a serious challenge to Britain’s two-party system once more. Equally, the decline in Labour support and the increase in Liberal Democrat support could be no more than coincidence; we should not immediately jump to the conclusion that the latter has caused the former. However, a closer look at the polls suggests that the two trends are related, and that Labour cannot afford to take its pro-Remain majority for granted. By taking a stance in favour of the invocation of Article 50, Labour has put itself at odds with the majority of its voters – some of whom already appear to have jumped ship to the Liberal Democrats as a result.

Table 1 presents the first piece of evidence as to why this is the case. The upper half of the table shows the average level of support for each of the parties in YouGov’s polls in August and September 2016 – that is, well before the Richmond byelection (which took place at the end of October), broken down separately for those who voted Remain in the EU referendum and those who voted Leave. The lower half shows the same information from the polls conducted by YouGov in January of this year.

Table 1
Division of party support among Remain and Leave Voters, September/October 2016 and January 2017

Voting intentionEU referendum vote

August/September 2016



Liberal Democrats




January 2017





Liberal Democrats




Source: Average of nine polls conducted by YouGov in August/September 2016, and five undertaken in January 2017.
Note: Those who did not state a voting intention are excluded.

First of all, we can see that both the Conservatives and (especially) Ukip are more popular among those who voted to leave than those who voted to remain. However, this is much the same now as it was back in August and September – if anything, the Conservative vote might even have become slightly more pro-Leave. In contrast, both Labour and (especially) the Liberal Democrats are more popular among those who voted to Remain. Indeed, despite the party’s low overall standing in the polls, Labour is far and away the most popular party among those who voted Remain.

However, something has changed here. In January support for the Liberal Democrats was 6 points higher among those who voted Remain than it had been in August/September of last year, while it stayed at just 3 per cent among those who supported Leave. At the same time, support for Labour has slipped by 5 points among those who voted Remain, while it has held steady among those who backed Leave.

Richmond: Labour’s undiscovered heartland?

Using exactly the same set of polls, table 2 presents the second crucial piece of evidence. It shows, first of all, how those who claim to have voted Labour in 2015 indicated last August and September how they would vote, while this information is then repeated for January. We can see that, for all the apparent popularity of Theresa May and her government, Labour has not lost any more support directly to the Conservatives now than it had by the previous August and September. Equally, the flow of votes from Labour to Ukip remains little more than a trickle. In contrast, the proportion of Labour’s 2015 supporters who have switched to the Liberal Democrats has doubled, such that Tim Farron’s party is now the single most popular destination for the nearly three-in-ten voters who have defected from Labour.

Table 2
How those who voted Labour in 2015 would vote now

August/September 2016January 2017
Liberal Democrats6%12%

Source: Average of nine polls conducted by YouGov in August/September 2016, and five undertaken in January 2017.
Note: Those who did not state a voting intention are excluded.

So in recent months Labour has lost ground to the Liberal Democrats among those who voted Remain, and this appears to be the principal source of the further decline in support that it has suffered. The Liberal Democrats’ appeal to ‘Remoaners’ has apparently had resonance beyond the leafy, well-heeled suburbs of Richmond. It would, at this point, be a mistake to describe the movement as posing a fundamental challenge to Britain’s party system. However, it does suggest that the continuing Brexit debate has the potential to shift votes – and given how unpopular Labour was even before the referendum was held, it is poorly placed to withstand even modest losses of support as a result of that debate.

Perhaps the lesson is that Labour – and many a commentator – has been too fixated on the party’s electoral past, and as a result failed to appreciate the current reality of its electoral support. It could be that a significant proportion of those who voted Leave last June were once Labour supporters. But if so, they were lost to the party well before the referendum, perhaps many years ago in some cases. What remains to the party is a more middle class and more socially liberal set of voters than it once enjoyed, most of whom backed Remain. It would seem that the party’s first priority should be to ensure that it retains their support. After all, losing one electoral base may be regarded as unfortunate; losing two could precipitate disaster.

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University and a columnist for Juncture.

This article is a preview of the forthcoming edition (issue 23.4) of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.

[1] Curtice J (2016) ‘Remain in light: What do Labour’s many Remain supporters want to happen next?’, Juncture 23(3): 209–212 [<<back]

[2] Curtice J (2016) ‘What do voters want from Brexit?’, NatCen Social Research. [<<back]

[3] Eaton G (2016) ‘Labour and Tory MPs fear the political forces that Brexit could unleash’, New Statesman, 8 December 2016 [<<back]

[4] Bush S (2017) ‘Why has Jeremy Corbyn committed Labour to voting for Article 50?’, New Statesman Staggers blog, 26 January 2017.[<<back]

[5] Hanretty C (2016) ‘Most Labour MPs represent a constituency that voted to leave’,, 30 June 2016.[<<back]

[6] Swales K (2016) Understanding the Leave vote, NatCen Social Research.[<<back]

[7] Mason R (2016) ‘New Ukip leader poses threat to Labour and the Tories’, Guardian, 28 November 2016.[<<back]