Sure the "remain" side in the EU referendum suffered a narrow defeat, but the Labour Party has lost in much bigger defeats and didn't abandon its policies, so that's not reason enough.

Possibilities I've considered: -

  • Corbyn just doesn't like the EU
  • Labour MPs in the Northern Labour heartlands represent constituencies who were largely pro-Brexit
  • The EU tends toward the political centre ground, so is incompatible with extreme policies on the left in the same way as the right.

Have I missed anything?

  • 2
    I'm pretty sure that all the major parties were deeply split on brexit during the referrendum campaign. It definitely wasn't a partisan issue. The remain option was not a Labour line then, why would it be now?
    – AJFaraday
    Jul 10, 2018 at 11:48
  • @AJFaraday What do you mean by "all the major parties"?
    – WS2
    Jul 11, 2018 at 10:34
  • 2
    @WS2 The only parties I'm aware of having a single issue on Brexit are single-issue parties. Convervatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats were deeply split within the party at the time of the referrendum. The Green Party had a clear statement for remaining (largely because of the environmental protections from the EU) and UKIP has a stated aim of making Britain 'independent' of the EU.
    – AJFaraday
    Jul 11, 2018 at 10:40

7 Answers 7


Because the majority of the people voted for Brexit.

In fact, this reason is given in the very first line of the Party's 2017 manifesto, in the Brexit chapter:

Labour accepts the referendum result and a Labour government will put the national interest first.

Thus, ex-post the referendum, the Labour Party accepts it because it is the will of the voters. As simple as that.

But then, someone might ask: "but why does the Labour Party accept the referendum?"

My tentative answer is: because the LP wants to be a popular party. Unlike the Lib Dems, for instance, who ask for a second referendum, the LP understands that (i) those who voted Brexit want Brexit, and (ii) most of those who voted Remain respect the referendum result. Thus, respecting the referendum is the only choice of a party aiming to be popular.

But then, are the Labour and Conservative approaches to Brexit the same? Not at all. For instance, page 26 of the same manifesto says (emphasis mine):

The EU has had a huge impact in securing workplace protections and environmental safeguards. But we all know that for many Brexiteers in the Tory Party, this was why they wanted to Leave – to tear up regulations and weaken hard-fought rights and protections.

A Labour government will never consider these rights a burden or accept the weakening of workers’ rights, consumer rights or environmental protections. We will introduce legislation to ensure there are no gaps in national security and criminal justice arrangements as a result of Brexit.

This is quite a left-wing line, which highlights that, even after Brexit, workers' rights and environment would be protected under LP-driven Brexit negotiations.

Thus, in conclusion, the LP supports Brexit because Brexit won the referendum. They are as such, quite pragmatic, whilst still aiming to keep their (Corbyn's) left-wing ideas in place.

  • 17
    +1 for giving the manifesto details, and I buy most of that as genuine reasoning. I do not buy the "because Brexit won the referendum" line, because the LP lost the last General Election but didn't dissolve itself to "respect the will of the people". Politics is a continuing debate - it doesn't end on the date of a referendum or election.
    – Martin
    Jul 9, 2018 at 14:19
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    @Martin The Labour Party had the highest vote share in 20 years and the biggest swing in 100 years at the last election. It is clearly the will of a very large group of people that the Labour Party exists and that the route Corbyn is taking is right. But a party might concede that they have lost on a specific policy without proposing to reverse it: that ship has sailed.
    – gerrit
    Jul 9, 2018 at 16:37
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    "Labour accepts the referendum result and a Labour government will put the national interest first." - so which one are they doing? By any rational analysis the two are mutually exclusive. Jul 9, 2018 at 21:32
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    @Martin Your point about "an ongoing debate" is most apt. The fact is that no one voted in the Referendum to make the country poorer. And what is now becoming clear to everyone (including if he were honest with himself - David Davies), and will eventually carry the day for Remain, is that you cannot take Britain out of the EU without making us all worse off. Barnier has said as much - "you cannot have a better deal on the outside than you have on the inside". Integrity of the EU project is more important to them than the sale of a few cars to Britain.
    – WS2
    Jul 10, 2018 at 5:52
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    @billpg: The major success of the Leave Campaign was to control the narrative so that a slim 52-48 majority of a 72% turnout (i.e. about 38% of those eligible to vote) became The Unshakeable Will of the People. Even to question this decision was to invite opprobrium as an anti-democratic running-dog of the plutocrats (see below). Jul 11, 2018 at 9:23

At the moment the issue seems to be less one of policy and more one of narrative. The Conservative Government is currently in charge of delivering Brexit. Nearly two years after the vote to Leave the EU, we still have no idea what a deal is going to look like in, well basically any particular. This is compounded by the resignation today of Britain's chief negotiator, David Davis and the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

There would not seem to be any political capital for the Labour party in offering any distraction from the current Government's problems. For, against, half-in, any statement at all from Labour simply allows the Government to change the narrative of the news cycle from their problems, to how Labour is seeking to; "Over turn the referendum", "sacrifice the economy for ideology", "abandon the workers", delete as appropriate.

  • 6
    These are thoughtful ideas with considerable truth and merit. But I do not think Corbyn's position is all about strategy. EU immigration has played a huge part, especially with unions. And the left of the Labour Party generally, and JC in particular, has always held an ideological objection to the EU. I am old enough to remember Hugh Gaitskell's famous speech (circa 1961), of which this is a 29 second clip The idea as further set out by people like Tony Benn is that the EEC was a "capitalist club".
    – WS2
    Jul 10, 2018 at 5:38
  • 1
    @WS2 My answer here is definitely more "true for today" than a total answer to the question. But in terms of political strategy, the today in question should probably cover the whole Article 50 period.
    – Jontia
    Jul 10, 2018 at 6:29

I think the notion that Labour supports Brexit needs to be nuanced a little.

There's a May 2018 opinion piece in the Guardian (by prof. Anand Menon) that describes Labour's support for Brexit as "strategic ambiguity" because while supporting the result of the referendum, the LP doesn't really have its own clear plan for how Brexit should happen.

As you noted (and nicely detailed in Menon's analysis, which is agreement with another one from JRF, Labour's electoral gains (in seats) depend on constituencies that are pro-Brexit.

Menon's analysis also links to one of his colleagues who labelled the LP strategy "Brexit Blairism" and explained:

Labour’s decision to embrace departure from the EU in some form may have helped them reframe the election around other issues such as austerity and public services, and remind voters in Leave areas of their traditional suspicions about the Conservatives. Meanwhile in Remain areas, the party could advance by promising a “softer” alternative approach to “hard” Brexit.

The latter analysis does not have much in the way of concrete examples... but looking at Corbyn's Brexit speech, easily finds some, e.g. on immigration:

Our immigration system will change and freedom of movement will as a statement of fact end when we leave the European Union.

But we have also said that in trade negotiations our priorities are growth, jobs and people’s living standards. We make no apologies for putting those aims before bogus immigration targets.

Labour would design our immigration policy around the needs of the economy based on fair rules and the reasonable management of migration.

We would not do what this government is doing, start from rigid red lines on immigration and then work out what that means for the economy afterwards.

As Diane Abbott, our Shadow Home Secretary, set out last week, “We do not begin with, ‘how do we reduce immigration?’, and to hell with the consequences. Those are Tory policies and Tory values”.


To stop employers being able to import cheap agency labour to undercut existing pay and conditions, collective agreements and sectoral bargaining must become the norm. Labour stands for ‘the rate for the job’, not ‘a race to the bottom’.

But let’s also be crystal clear it is not migrants that drive down wages, it is bad employers that cut pay and bad governments that allow workers to be divided and undermined, and want unions to be weak and passive.

The last two paragraphs in particular echo the JRF findings that low-income, pro-Brexit/anti-immigration voters also want broader left-wing economic policies, whereas the paragraphs above those are an example of "softer" Brexit being proposed (on immigration in this case).

I tried to find some poll relating to the above. Alas, the most recent I found was from December 2017, but it does seem to support the "ambiguity" conclusion... around that time:

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[A] recent poll by YouGov suggests that even people who plan to vote Labour at the next election are unsure of the party’s position.

Nearly a quarter said they thought Labour was completely against Brexit, a third thought the party was on the fence, and a tenth said they didn’t know.

In June 2018 there was actually a Labour "new single market" proposal that (methinks) partly contradicts the ambiguity claim on grounds of not proposing something concrete. On the other hand the June events confirm the "softer Brexit" view of Labour. As BusinessInsider [BI] reported:

Last week, the Labour leadership tabled an amendment to the Withdrawal Bill which detailed its policy of a new single market relationship with the EU, based on "full access" and "no new impediments to trade."

"We are confident we can build a new relationship with the EU. We want the UK to have a better deal than the Norway model," Jeremy Corbyn said to the House of Commons last week.

Labour's Brexit team believes its willingness to accept all EU regulations and standards would persuade Brussels to be flexible on issues such as free movement.

"In France and Germany, they are talking about the free movement of people. Standards are much more important to the EU than immigration," an ally of Shadow Brexit Secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, told BI last month.

Reactions from Brussels however were that the proposal was "cake-ism" and "selling a unicorn to paste over their internal divisions" (just like the Tories) as BI reported.

And if the question is mainly about Corbyn's position, back in February he supported a customs union after Brexit, unlike the government's view (then and still now) that that's too much.

Speaking in Coventry, a city which voted by 56 per cent to Leave, Mr Corbyn said: “We have long argued that a customs union is a viable option for the final deal.

“Labour would seek to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union to ensure that there are no tariffs with Europe and to help avoid any need whatsoever for a hard border in Northern Ireland.”

“We are also clear that the option of a new UK customs union with the EU would need to ensure the UK has a say in future trade deals,” he said.

“A new customs arrangement would depend on Britain being able to negotiate agreement of new trade deals in our national interest.”

And Corbyn reiterated on that occasion that a custom union doesn't entail accepting EU migrants (obviously true, and happens elsewhere, e.g. Turkey has a customs union with EU). On the other hand, the reaction from the Tories was...

East Yorkshire MP David Davis slammed the Labour announcement, saying it would prevent the UK from realising the benefits of Brexit. The Tory Government proposes leaving both the customs union and single market.

The Tory position on that has eroded as well since February, but still not as much as to accept a customs union (and call it such).

And speaking of erosion, the harder line on Brexit has certainly sufferend that in June, with the rebellion of a significant number of Labor MPs:

Jeremy Corbyn has suffered a 90-strong rebellion over a Brexit vote on remaining in the European Economic Area, with six of his MPs resigning from their frontbench roles.

Their resignations were revealed moments before the result of a vote on a Lords Brexit bill amendment which called for the government to make remaining in the EEA a negotiating objective.

The House of Commons voted 327 to 126 to reject the proposed amendment, with 74 Labour MPs rebelling against their party's whip to vote in favour of EEA membership.

A further 15 Labour MPs rebelled in breach of the abstain order to vote against EEA membership, while one Labour MP, Susan Elan Jones, also defied the party's official position to act as a teller for the vote.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said [...]: "I understand the difficulties MPs representing constituencies which voted strongly for Leave or Remain have on the EEA amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. "The Labour Party respects the outcome of the EU referendum and does not support the EEA or 'Norway model' as it is not the right for option for Britain.

"It would leave us with next to no say over rules we have to follow, it does not allow us to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union and it fails to resolve the Irish border issue.

Even Reuters which usually doesn't advance much politcal commentary said of the June events:

But it was in the Labour Party where the deepest rifts were exposed. Many of its pro-EU lawmakers went against their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, by supporting the vote [on EEA] and not his amendment which argued for a new single market deal with the EU.

And if Corbyn wasn't too explcit on the meanig of this "new single market", his shadow Brexit secretary was:

Labour's shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: "Labour will only accept a Brexit deal that delivers the benefits of the single market and protects jobs and living standards.

"Unlike the Tories, Labour will not sacrifice jobs and the economy in the pursuit of a reckless and extreme interpretation of the referendum result.

"Existing single market agreements that the EU has negotiated with third countries, including Norway, are bespoke deals negotiated with the EU to serve the best interests of those countries.

"We need to learn from them and negotiate our own more ambitious agreement, which serves our economic interests and which prevents a hard border in Northern Ireland. [...]

"Labour's amendment, along with a commitment to negotiate a new comprehensive customs union with the EU, is a strong and balanced package that would retain the benefits of the Single Market. Parliament should have the opportunity to debate and vote on it."

The "new single market" amendment was however defeated 322 to 240. Also on this occasion, the "customs amendment", which asked only for customs union after Brexit, had broader Labour support, being defeated only with 326 against 298.

  • 1
    -1 a brief review of the Leader's major quotes on Brexit reveals a very different story and no nuance. Having called for Article 50 to be triggered "now" he has restated many times that his intent is for labour to deliver Brexit and that the party would not "frustrate" the process. His biggest concern is not that Brexit is in any way harmful to workers (in spite of all the evidence) but it is merely that an opponent is running negotiations and he believes he can deliver concessions against core EU principles (such as the four freedoms) which they would summarily reject. Jul 9, 2018 at 21:49
  • 2
    @JamesSnell: You're entitled to your opinion and vote, but the last article clearly gives a quote from Corbyn on his view on Brexit. "Deliver" what exactly? A new single market? And call it Brexit. Jul 9, 2018 at 21:53
  • 1
    Regarding the reasons for EU's insistence on free movement, there's a question here with good answers: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/11505/… Jul 10, 2018 at 13:35
  • 1
    Your answer calls for nuance, there is no nuance and that's how you picked up a downvote for being factually inaccurate. Jul 10, 2018 at 20:59
  • 2
    @JamesSnell: which part of my answer is "factually inaccurate"? Jul 11, 2018 at 0:48

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party is a left-winger, far removed politically from the Blairite side of the party.

There is a long tradition of the left of the Labour Party having opposed Britain's membership of the EU, and prior to that the EEC. At the time of the 1974 referendum, figures like Tony Benn opposed our joining the EEC, and sat on platforms with Conservative right-wingers like Enoch Powell. The tradition has involved Labour as seeing the European project as a "capitalist club".

At the 2016 Referendum, UKIP campaigned strongly in some Labour constituencies, and one third of Labour electors voted to leave.

The vast majority of Labour MPs support Remain, some of them like Chuka Ummuna, very forcefully. But for the moment the present Labour hierarchy are reluctant to embrace Remain more enthusiastically, but this could quickly change if there is a groundswell of movement to Remain in the public at large.

Tony Blair, the former Labour Prime Minister and many of those who served under him are strong supporters of Remain.


Some Labour MPs seem to be having a moral crisis over this issue, and it's unnecessary. Certainly, Brexit won the poll, more people voted to leave than to stay, and that triggered a set of procedural obligations. But it's not correct to go further and say that most people voted to leave, or that the majority of the population voted to leave, because numerically, that's not what happened.

Consider the math. Of those who felt sure enough of their opinions on polling day to vote yes or no, the ratio was 51.9% to 48.1% in favour of leave. The turnout was 72.2%, which means that another 27.8% of the eligible population either didn't know, weren't sure, weren't bothered, or decided to leave the decision to people who they felt were more confident about the issues than they were ("let's leave it to the experts who know more about this stuff than me").

So the breakdown of "should Britain leave the EU?", expressed as Yes/NotSure/No, arguably comes out (with rounding) as something more like a 38 / 28 / 34 split.

It's clear who the "first past the post" winner is, but the 38% doesn't necessarily equate to some sort of monolithic "Will of the People" that must not be questioned without one being seen as an enemy of democracy, especially when another thirty-something percent voted for the opposite. It was the will of some of the people, plus the votes of another bunch of people who were persuaded to go along for the ride because they were told that Britain would be economically better off if we left ("more money for the NHS!"), and that our expert negotiators would get us a brilliant exit deal. If neither of those things turn out to be true, then the 62% (and some of the regretting 38%) may blame Corbyn and the Labour Party for failing to be a proper opposition and for sitting back and letting this happen.

  • 1
    Good answer. Can you source (link) to any of the statistics you provided?
    – Wes Sayeed
    Jul 10, 2018 at 23:24
  • 1
    +1 Even ignoring the "don't know" group, 48% of the vote is still a lot of people and their wishes deserve some representation. I can't remember a time when so many people were ignored by both Government and Opposition.
    – Martin
    Jul 11, 2018 at 5:57
  • 1
    Hi Wes! I got the voting statistics from the BBC site: bbc.co.uk/news/politics/eu_referendum/results
    – Eric Baird
    Jul 11, 2018 at 10:11

As the wise folk say, broad generalizations are always wrong, but nonetheless: Globally in industrialized economies, labour parties and unions tend to disfavour globalization and free trade, because it generally is seen to reduce local skilled manufacturing employment by allowing products to be imported from lower-wage economies. The thinking is, we'd have tons of people employed right here in this country, at high wages (and unionized!) making our own cars and electronics and steel, if only we could prevent these things coming in cheaply from over there where people are paid so much less. They will try to gain popular support by appealing to local pride, national preferences in product options, concern for human rights in low-wage countries, and sometimes on grounds of national security and economic self-sufficiency.

Conversely, favour for free trade tends to correlate with centre-right politics. Economists see the efficiencies in not duplicating production needlessly in each country, and business owners like the profits that they get from reselling cheap imports. They will argue that importing from low-wage countries tends to build the economies, and thus standards of living and human rights, of producer countries, and that the whole world is richer, overall, than in a system of barriered economies, creating global markets for our exports. And consumers, of course, like to get stuff cheap.

That the current US administration is largely anti-free-trade shows that it's beholden less to established corporate interests (who are widely spooked by this round of protectionism) than to mid-to-far-right populist opinion. Part of this reflects the nationalistic ethos of that group; but there's also the phenomenon that's evolved in the for the last few decades, where the R party has captured support from the working class (white) voters as the D party moved into the direction of civil rights, capturing support from more educated, internationally-aware voters.

So if you're comparing UK politics to US, basically: there is no labour-supporting party in the US; the D and the former R parties were both what globally would reckon as economically centre-right parties (competing for votes largely on non-economic social issues, like gun rights, abortion and militarism), and the current nominally-R administration is way over in the mid-to-far right space, driven by nationalistic populism.

  • 1
    Indeed. Not only does Corbyn have a personal anti-EU track record, he also knows very well that his party's electoral prospects depend on bringing back into the fold the people who deserted Labour for UKIP or were strongly tempted to do so: the people, by and large, who have seen their wages under pressure and who rightly or wrongly feel that immigration threatens their livelihood. Jul 9, 2018 at 21:12

I will try to answer this from the point of a member of the Labour Party, I joined about a year ago. However, this is largely opinion based as I cannot read Jeremy Corbyn's mind!

During the referendum campaigning, Corbyn was on the side of "Remain" but he did not campaign very actively at all and gave me the impression of being sat somewhat on the fence. He has generally been cool towards the EU and whilst not actively opposing it, he doesn't have a record of being a Europhile.

Nobody knows what will happen if Brexit goes ahead so this position is not unatural, there will be pros and cons and neither option is clearly better than the other.

So Corbyn's natural position on the EU and Brexit is to sit somewhat on the fence and so supporting a Soft Brexit, even as leader of the opposition, is understandable. The government's current position has (or now appears to be) for "soft" Brexit, ie staying in some kind of trading agreement with the EU.

The White Paper that Theresa May is due to reveal tomorrow seems to be for limiting migration, but for keeping some of the rules/laws of the EU in return to free access to the common market. This is a pretty soft Brexit indeed but the EU will not agree to limiting migration, so the UK will have to have to compromise on that. At the end of the day whilst this would be Brexit in name, the reality is likely not much will actually have changed post-Brexit, other than the UK no longer having a say over how the EU is run and possibly paying less towards running it. Obviously this will depend on the how negotiations progress and nobody currently knows that.

Another point is that a lot of Labour seats were more in favour of Brexit, so the party may feel it has to support Brexit as its core voters want it. This supports that premise.

However, that doesn't really tell the full story, or you could argue that way. There is an opinion that the Brexit vote was in fact a protest vote against the government, at the time the Conservatives were in power with David Cameron as PM and he supported Remain. It's possible that Leave voters (in Labour areas) would vote Leave as a protest against him. (source)

This is further backed up if you look in more detail at the opinions of those in Leave Labour seats, they don't see Brexit as a major issue.

I suspect the Labour position will change over time and if hostility towards Brexit gathers pace (there is some evidence of this already) and they may support a second referendum. Keir Starmer has not ruled out another referendum and other MPs are now suggesting another referendum might be required.

Also if the government tries to pursue a hard Brexit, or a no-deal Brexit, Labour would oppose this as it could erode workers rights, for example, as the government would no longer have to abide by EU laws.

Bearing in mind most Labour MPs are Remainers, I think this also shows the party will oppose Brexit when they feel the time is right to do so.

Finally it is worth remembering that the referendum was not legally binding and the government of the day can ignore it - the whole thing was brought about by the division within the Conservative party as they have a large number of Eurosceptic MPs.

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