One of the first major issues for Keir Starmer, the new leader of the Labour Party as of the 4th of April, concerns the potential extension of the Brexit transition period, which keeps most EU Laws in place in the United Kingdom and is set to expire at the end of this year. For Starmer, previously the Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union for three years, the issue is critically important for the future direction of his party.
There is also no doubt that the issue will not be one of mere policy but something personal. During the leadership contest, Starmer, once a leading advocate for a second referendum, did not rule out campaigning for re-joining the European Union sometime in the future. All of the MPs that now make up the new Shadow Cabinet backed Remain in the 2016 Referendum. Their political careers were forged in opposition to Brexit, and no doubt they feel that, surely, several current Labour supporters as well as recent Liberal Democrat voters would still prefer the United Kingdom to be a member of the European Union.
At the same time, however, the Labour Party suffered its worst defeat in nearly a hundred years in December due to its position on Brexit. The question about extending the transition period therefore becomes a crucial one. It will signal the public whether Labour will seek to keep fighting this battle––even if it may still be a losing one––or will recognise defeat and move on to other issues important to its voters.
In a recent poll of 1,500 respondents conducted on April 8th, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies took the opportunity to get a sense of what the public thought Keir Starmer and his party should do regarding this issue. Looking at the issue as a simple question of whether the UK should extend the transition period or not, a narrow plurality of respondents thought the transition period should indeed be extended. This figure included two-thirds of those who voted for Labour or the Liberal Democrats in 2019 and even a quarter of Conservative voters!
On the surface, this result would suggest Labour would be supported by its voters in moving forward with advocating for a transition period extension. After all, this position would, it seems, align with what their supporters think should happen.
Yet, this superficial alignment collapses upon deeper analysis. When asked whether the Labour Party itself should push for an extension, a significantly strong majority of all respondents thought that Labour instead should move on from Brexit.
A little more than a third of those who think the UK should extend the transition period also thought the Labour Party should move onto other issues. Meanwhile, those who voted for Labour in 2019 were nearly split: 44% preferred advocating for an extension against 46% who preferred focusing on other issues beyond Brexit. In terms of those who backed Remain in 2016, almost half (47%) backed moving on.
What could be going on here?
Similar to what we saw in the Brexit election, surface level support for being a member of the European Union does not appear to translate into active enthusiasm and votes. Not understanding this difference was the fundamental mistake made particularly by the Liberal Democrats, who woefully misjudged the mood of the public in pushing for an election where, in the end, about a quarter of 2016 Remain voters eventually voted Conservative. Despite their own opinions, members of the public are keen to respect politics.
Likewise, respondents to our poll on Wednesday seemed to recognise political reality, which is that the Conservative Party holds an eighty-seat majority. The Government can make a decision however it wants. In fact, nearly two-thirds of past Conservative voter responding to our poll do not want an extension to the transition period. Even in the event that the Labour Party would be able to exert significant pressure and bring about an extension, the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement set a maximum of two more years to a potential extension––well before the next parliamentary election is due to take place.
The public, it seems, does not want to fight the battles of the past anymore. The fact that Keir Starmer was a strong proponent of a second referendum and backed Remain, for instance, does not inspire a greater likelihood for voting for Labour among members of the public. 38% of 2016 Remain voters said they were neither more nor less likely to vote for Labour due to Starmer’s pro-Remain credentials.
The message, therefore, should be clear: move on.
This research was also published in The New Statesmen.