Big majority of Labour members 'want UK to stay in single market'

Research could put pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to adjust Brexit stance, given his desire to give power to party grassroots

Support for Britain to remain in the EU single market and customs union is overwhelming among Labour party members, according to a poll showing that more than eight out of 10 think the UK should stay in Europe’s key trading blocs.

The figures, from research carried out as part of the Party Members Project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and shared exclusively with the Guardian, also show heavy backing for a second referendum.

The figures could pile pressure on Jeremy Corbyn over his party’s position on Brexit, which is currently against maintaining full single market membership, because he is determined to give members a bigger voice.

The Labour leader told his party’s MPs on Monday night that the party had 560,000 members whom he wanted to be actively engaging with.

On Brexit, the survey revealed that their views are fiercely pro-EU, including that:

  • 49% of members think there should “definitely” be a vote on the final Brexit deal, with a further 29.4% answering “more yes than no” to the question, and only 8.8% definitely opposing it.
  • Two-thirds of members (66%) think Britain should definitely stay in the single market with a further fifth (20.7%) saying “more yes than no” to the question. Only 4.2% of Labour members said they definitely believed Britain should leave the grouping.
  • There were similar levels of support on the customs union with 63.1% saying Britain should definitely stay within the group, 22.2% leaning towards the same position, and only 2.4% saying the UK should definitely leave it.

Corbyn and his shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, have argued that the UK has to leave the single market to fulfil the Brexit vote, but that the party will fight to retain the benefits of the free trade area.

However, critics, including on Labour’s own backbenches, have attacked that position, with one senior figure in the party telling the Guardian that there were divisions at shadow cabinet level over the issue.

They claimed that a position of “studied ambiguity” could not continue indefinitely – with amendments on the repeal bill likely to push the party in one direction or another.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, which carried out the research alongside the University of Sussex, agreed. “Members overwhelmingly wanted to stay in EU and now want to remain inside the single market and customs union, so there is likely to be some discomfort over any ‘have our cake and eat it’ policy from the leadership,” he said.

Bale said there would come a point at which Corbyn’s party would be forced to “show its true colours on this – and it can either go with the membership and probably the feeling of most MPs, or it can carry on with what is effectively a hard Brexit”.

He claimed it would be harder to keep in line MPs such as Chuka Umunna, who infuriated the leadership by laying down an amendment on the Queen’s speech calling for Britain to stay in the single market, because their arguments chimed with members.

The survey came as Corbyn told MPs that he would spend the summer campaigning in the 75 most marginal Tory-held seats and 20 in Scotland – with the leader already targeting the Hastings constituency of Amber Rudd with a rally that attracted more than 1,000 supporters.

A spokesman for Corbyn said the campaign, which would also include a social media blitz, would be the largest the party had embarked on outside an election.

Meanwhile, 16 key Labour figures including a number of MPs, the party’s local council representative on the NEC, and the man who ran Corbyn’s second leadership campaign, have come together to set up a group that will aim to bolster the party’s support in England.

The English Labour Network, which will launch this week, claims that the party cannot win a UK majority without winning over voters who “identify as English rather than British” and with whom the party has lagged behind.

The group, which includes the former Labour Cabinet secretary John Denham, MPs Jon Cruddas, Liam Byrne, Shabana Mahmood and Sam Tarry – who was a co-director of Corbyn’s re-election campaign, said the challenge was “to give Labour a distinct English voice”.

They argued that issues were often labelled as Scottish or Welsh, but England only policies such as the NHS or tuition fees were branded as British.

“We know, for example, that some Labour activists worry that engaging with Englishness means making concessions to racism and xenophobia. It doesn’t, and we’ll help show how,” Denham wrote in a blog to be launched on Tuesday.

Their push is for Labour to be a strong patriotic voice and also reach out to voters who backed leave.

But the party will also need to be mindful of its members, with today’s survey showing that 87% voted remain in the 2016 referendum.

Starmer told the Guardian that Labour was a “pro-European, outward looking Party” that wanted close relations with the EU.

“That’s why we have said that retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union must be the priority for negotiations, and that we must continue to work closely with our European partners. We have also said that options for delivering this should be left on the table and that the prime minister needs to be far more flexible in her approach,” he said.

He insisted that Labour would fight May’s “extreme Brexit” and said he had been visiting local constituency Labour parties across the country and speaking to thousands of members and supporters, “so I know how strongly people feel about Brexit”.

“We will continue to listen to and work with members to take policy forward and to take on this reckless Tory government.”

The 2017 survey of members was a repeat of a similar study carried out in 2015. It suggests Labour has had a surge in the number of women members with the percentage rising from 38% to 47%. More than half of members are graduates, with an average age of 53 and fairly affluent - with 77% of those surveyed from an ABC1 social group - up from 70% in 2015.

Umunna, who chairs Vote Leave Watch, said: “It is clear that Labour people want to see clear red water between Theresa May’s job-destroying Brexit and Labour’s position. Here is clear evidence that keeping membership of the single market and the customs union on the table in these negotiations is the best way Labour can distinguish itself and provide the strongest possible opposition to the Tories on Brexit.”

He claimed that “access” was an inferior option and would inflict an economic cost that would stop Labour pursuing its anti-austerity policies.


Anushka Asthana Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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