Given that the EU Referendum was one of the most dominating, bitterly contested and emotional political campaigns in Britain for decades, that British politics is now and for the foreseeable future dominated by Brexit, and that support for or opposition to EU membership is a reflection of one’s deeply held political values, convictions and beliefs, it is hardly surprising that the electoral fortune of the UK’s political parties are already intricately tied to their stance on Brexit.
Brexit is the single issue on which the Liberal Democrats are trying to re-build their electoral base following the disastrous 2015 election, and on the basis of which UKIP are trying to persuade voters that they still have something to say. It was the key issue in the recent Westminster by-elections, and likely in the forthcoming Manchester Gorton by-election, and the local elections in May, as well. The electoral success or failure of the major parties in the UK for the next few years will hinge on their stance on Brexit, and how well they manage to convince voters that they share their views about the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
In this ‘Brexit, young people & the parties’ series, we will consider whether and how Brexit is affecting the party preferences of young voters, and how this could influence future elections (such as the local elections in May). Young people occupy a distinct niche in electoral politics; while they are the least likely to vote in any kind of election, they are also the most receptive to new ideas and influences on their political support, as they have yet to form the same habits and lasting preferences as their elders. This makes the young a key target constituency for political parties. Given the dominance of Brexit as the political issue of this Parliament, how successfully the parties manage to appeal to young voters over the issue could well have serious consequences for their future electoral performance.
In this first blog of the series, we consider the fortunes of the Labour Party. Since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, there has been little good news to speak of in terms of the party’s support or electoral performance. While Labour’s membership is the largest it has been for decades, and dwarfs that of the other UK parties, their popularity in the electorate has almost constantly waned. The opinion polls show levels of support as low as those last seen in the 1980s, and the recent by-election in Copeland saw the party lose a seat they should have won easily, and to the governing Conservative at that. Brexit has presented yet another headache for: the party’s voters were particularly divided between remain and leave in the EU Referendum, and Jeremy Corbyn has been forced to potentially alienate the former by supporting Brexit in the House of Commons. Prof John Curtice’s research suggests they are already losing support to the Liberal Democrats as a result, and leaked data shows they have lost thousands of members as well.
When it comes to young people’s support for Labour, the picture is more complicated, because as well as being the most pro-EU voters in the electorate, they are also likely to be supportive of Jeremy Corbyn. Even as Labour and Corbyn’s popularity has fallen since he became leader in 2015, the under-25s have remained staunch in their support. In backing Brexit, however, Jeremy Corbyn has forced these young people to choose between their support for him and their support for EU membership.
Using polling data from YouGov, we can see how the under-25s support for Labour has changed since the EU Referendum, and how this decision has affected them. The graph below shows the proportion of under-25s who would vote for Labour in an immediate general election, as well as the proportion that would vote Conservative or Liberal Democrat for comparison. Shortly after the referendum in July, Labour were comfortably in the lead, with almost 30% of under-25s supporting the party. The Tories were in a distant second (17%), followed by the Lib Dems (9%). Over the following summer, Labour’s support increased, reaching a peak of 39% at the end of August. It fell sharply, however, between the end of September and the end of October; this is the period immediately following Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the second leadership election, his rather lengthy and somewhat chaotic reshuffle of the Shadow Cabinet, and during which the party faced considerable controversy regarding its handling of anti-Semitism amongst members. While it is not possible to identify which of these factors, if any, caused the decline, it is clear that Labour lost the support of a considerable portion of its most ardent supporters immediately after the EU Referendum.
Figure One: Under-25s Vote Intention, July – February
Perhaps surprisingly, the party’s decision to support Brexit in Parliament by voting for the legislation paving the way for Article 50 to be triggered does not seem to have produced a lasting decline in support. The vote in the House of Commons took place on 31st January; there was a small drop in support around this time, but by the end of February it had recovered again. There is little question that Labour’s support is lower now amongst young voters than it was following the EU Referendum, but that decline seems to have more to do with the party’s difficult summer than its stance on Brexit, and they are still comfortably ahead of both the Tories and the Lib Dems amongst this age group. Jeremy Corbyn took a big gamble in telling his party to support Brexit, and forcing his young supporters to choose between their support for him and Labour, and their support for EU membership. So far, though, it looks as though he got away with it.