18 June 2024

What Rachel Reeves gets wrong about Brexit


Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves has been talking in recent days about Labour’s ambition to revise the UK’s trade deal with the EU. Closer alignment of regulation is a key part of that. One of Labour’s main ambitions, set out in its manifesto, is an agreement with the EU on veterinary regulations. But in Reeves’ view, regulatory alignment should go much further than that.

In an interview with The Financial Times she said: ‘I don’t think anyone voted Leave because they were not happy that chemicals regulations were the same across Europe… When my constituency voted leave, it was purely because of immigration’.

This comment by Reeves reflects a common but fundamental misunderstanding among those who supported Remain about why people voted to leave the EU. Extensive polling was done on the day of the EU Referendum by Lord Ashcroft’s polling team. This found that 49% of Leave voters regarded sovereignty (more specifically, ‘the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK’) as their single biggest reason for voting Leave. This compared with 33% who said the main reason was immigration, that leaving ‘offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders’.

A similar on-the-day survey was conducted by YouGov, which found that 45% of Leave Voters regarded ‘to strike a better balance between Britain’s right to act independently, and the appropriate level of co-operation with other countries’ as their main reason for supporting Leave. All the while, 26% said it was ‘to help us deal better with the issue of immigration’.

Thus it was not merely untrue that no one voted Leave because they were not happy that the EU set chemicals regulation across Europe including the UK – that was in fact far and away the single more important reason people voted to Leave.

It is worth noting that even these figures may understate the significance of sovereignty in motivating the vote. After all, immigration was itself the single most widely-discussed case of the UK not having control of decisions affecting it and the way that lack of control was most visible to ordinary voters. It is thus likely that some of those who reported immigration as their main reason for voting Leave were referring to the UK government not having control of immigration, rather than any objections per se to the numbers of people coming in or their make-up.

Two years later, one might have expected people’s memories of the referendum to have faded and become muddled by relentless claims by Remainers, anti-immigration lobbies and Theresa May that the Leave vote was all about immigration.

Indeed, when the Centre for Social Investigation looked into this issue again in 2018, they found that Leave voters by then thought that immigration had been slightly more important than sovereignty in motivating their vote (with 39% ranking ‘to regain control over EU immigration’ as their most important reason, versus 35% who ranked ‘didn’t want the EU to have any role in UK law-making’ highest).

But what was really striking about this survey wasn’t the modest reshuffling of Leaver preferences. Rather, it was how dramatically wrong Remain voters still were about why Leavers voted as they did. Some 52% of Remain voters thought immigration had been the single biggest reason Leavers voted out, and only 10% thought ‘Leavers didn’t want the EU to have any role in UK law-making’ was the most important reason – far, far below the true figure.

Thus at one level it should be unsurprising that Reeves is so demonstrably wrong – she is simply reflecting the common prejudices of Remain voters. Yet at another level, one would have expected, or at least hoped, that someone seeking to be Chancellor within weeks would be more familiar with the truth on such a fundamental issue to Britain’s economic and constitutional future.

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Andrew Lilico is an economist and writer.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.