4-in-10 Lib Dem voters inclined to leave EU, says poll – a reminder why our pitch should be ‘In Europe to reform the EU’

‘If a referendum were held on the UK’s membership of the European Union, how do you think you would vote?’ That’s the question posed by polling company Opinium and published today in The Observer — with the following result reported by the paper:

Almost four out of 10 Liberal Democrat voters support leaving the EU, according to a new poll which shows that hardline euroscepticism has taken hold in Britain’s most pro-European party. An Opinium/Observer survey has found that 39% of Lib Dem supporters would be inclined to vote in favour of leaving Europe if an in/out referendum were called.

So while a plurality of current Lib Dem voters are opposed to a ‘Brexit’, a substantial minority would be in favour of the party leaving the EU. The result isn’t all that surprising given the current pitch of anti-EU fervour generated by the Eurozone crisis and EU leaders’ sclerotic response.

It’s also not that surprising when you consider Lib Dem members’ views, either. We’ve polled twice on the issue at LibDemVoice and on each occasion found a greater range of views than might have been expected from a party traditionally pigeon-holed as Europhiles — most recently, in February, we found the following:

LDV asked: Which of the following options would be your ideal future for the UK and the European Union?

    46% – The UK should remain a full member of the EU and work towards ever closer union, economically and politically.

    40% – The UK should remain a full member of the EU but reject working towards ever closer union, economically and politically.

    10% – The UK should secure substantial renegotiation of its existing relationship with the EU but remain a full member.

    3% – The UK should leave the EU altogether and instead negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU.

    2% – Don’t know / No opinion

A full 96% of members supported remaining within the EU — however, 40% rejected the idea of moving any further towards the path of ‘ever greater union’, while a further 10% wanted to see a substantial renegotiation of the existing UK relationship with the EU.

I’ve argued before the Lib Dems need to make a more assertive pitch on Europe: ‘In Europe to reform the EU’. Too often the Lib Dems are seen as too starry-eyed on this issue. Sometimes that’s because we are. This is understandable: the xenophobic tone of much anti-EU commentary tends to encourage Lib Dems to over-compensate in our praise of the EU. So here’s a reminder of the policy and tone I think Nick Clegg should be emphasising as the party’s constructively critical position on Europe:

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International, Op-eds and Polls.


  • In Britain there’s a very simple choice. You can vote for a party that appeases racists, adopts authoritarian policies that offend the most basic international standards of human rights and which accepts the abuse the extremists (especially among the press barons) throw at the EU.

    Or you can vote for the LibDems. I believe in living in a free country. I believe in a united Europe. There’s no where else for me to go. Keep the LibDems as the pro-Europe party. It’s the only one we’ve got. There’s no need to change.

  • Daniel Henry 18th Nov '12 - 5:47pm

    I disagree with both Andrew and Chris.
    I think that not only would a strong message of reform sit nicely beside a positive case for Europe (after all, isn’t it supposed to be an optimistic and forward-looking position?), I think it would help disarm our opponents criticisms.

    We’d be able to say, “even with some of the problems they point out, we’re the only ones offering a constructive solution to these problems”

    So I’m really hoping that our new EU policy working group come back with some strong ideas for reform.

  • David Allen 18th Nov '12 - 7:07pm

    I agree with Daniel Henry, except that the slogan is rubbish. “In Europe to reform it” sounds schoolmarmish. It all too obviously has been written by activists to appeal to activists, which means it will turn off everyone else. Normal people who find themselves in (for example) a pub or a shop which they don’t like, don’t usually try to reform it. They just clear off down the road and find something better.

    Why don’t we say that because we are Europe’s strongest supporters, we are also Europe’s toughest critics? We want Europe to work. At the moment, Europe is letting us down with endless arguments, financial fraud and inefficiencies. Vote for us, and we’ll work to clear up the mess. Vote for UKIP, and you’ll pay for an MEP to swan around the bars of Brussels doing nothing, because he gets his votes by poking fun at Europe, and he has no interest in making things change.

  • Paul McKeown 18th Nov '12 - 7:19pm

    Tr. “everyone who thinks as Judy B does, is writing commonsense; everyone else is a hopeless romantic”.


  • I don’t see the point of your post, Stephen – you are just underlining your role as a policy wonk. When we have said anything official from the centre, what you have written is what has always been said. It has made no difference.

    Agree with Ian Bearder and Paul Haydon. There should be a wider international perspective too. My view is that we are moving towards “world government” in some form, and we have to prepare for the most democratic and devolutionist form of that. Moggy entreats us to turn away from internationalism – as has been said earlier we cannot do that. Our only option (you may have heard me say this before) is to turn full on on the tabloid agenda, so that finally it is understood what we are on about. All the things – controlling environmental problems, capitalist excess, tax evasion, organised crime etc – are not possible without wider democratic government. Surely Federal Union in Europe (Africa too) is a staging post to a modern, inclusive world?

  • EU reform has been happening and continues. I want no truck with those who subscribe to a myth that it isn’t. I agree with Ian Bearder.

    The important factor, firstly, is to be in the room, participating in the debate and then to base our contributions on verifiable facts (rather than dog whistle anti EU scary assertions – does Stephen Tall really think that the MEPs have any of their sessions in Luxembourg ).

    Do we want increased coordinated investment in the EU? Do we think that the EU should be self sufficient in food or do we think that the EU should produce less agricultural products and buy more from around the world? What are the important issues in the environment? Should the EU be a major aid donor around the world?

  • Reading the comments here on this thread, I reflect on Jill Hope, as she scratches around the discarded ballot boxes of Corby, looking for 13 votes to secure her deposit. And I wonder why (some), liberals still, don’t get it.
    However, the good news is that on the EU issue, 4 out of 10 liberals, have started to get it. As far as the rest are concerned, Panglossianism unfortunately, still rules.

  • I joined the party because of it’s pro-European stance. Tories are hostile to Europe and – as we are seeing – Labour’s position blows in the wind. If that changes then I’m off.

  • Richard Swales 19th Nov '12 - 7:50am

    The trouble is, still holding a policy of joining the single currency after all that has happened, and, as far as I know, still in favour of a constitutional debt brake (but only since the exact date that it became the EU’s policy), it is a lot easier for your opponents to paint you as unquestioningly loyal to the EU rather than objective and reform minded. The statistics above show a great way for the other parties to attack you. Don’t expect you can go to the next election with a policy of putting Britain into the single currency without someone from another party mentioning it on TV.

    Some people seem to think that (if only they can get in the room) British politicians can so easily talk round continental politicians, who in their minds seem rather like blank slates for us to write. Actually they themselves are adults, who have already thought about the issues and already heard from their own civil servants. Supporters of the “reform though sheer debating power” view should really try to imagine it the other way round – how likely it would be that David Cameron would come back from Brussels and say “Yes I know I stated my position on the EU before I went to the meeting as well as throughout my political career, but then Andrius Kublius said something in Lithuanian and when it was translated for me I realised that I had been wrong all along”. It’s actually (when you really look under the bonnet and poke around) a really nationalistic view that continental politicians are so much more malleable than our own ones.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Nov '12 - 1:38pm

    Sure, we should make clear that support for membership of the EU does not mean we agree with everything it does and all the ways it does it. However, Liberal Democrats DON’T tend to hold to that position. The idea that we are all “starry eyed” about Europe is one of those tired old lines put about by our opponents, along with the one that we all wear beards and sandals, or all wholeheartedly agree with Nick Clegg that the current government is the culmination of our dreams (or 75% of our dreams …).

    The danger with the line “In Europe to reform the EU” is that it gives a lot away to our opponents, it helps build up their argument that the EU is fundamentally a bad thing.

    I am old enough to remember when opposition to EU membership in the UK tended to be largely on the left of politics. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives supported EEC (as it then was called) membership, Michael Foot’s Labour Party opposed it. Anti-EEC people tended to argue that Britain was naturally a socialist country (Thatcher’s government was an aberration that would soon go), and membership of the EEC meant locking ourselves into a fundamentally capitalist organisation that was not in accord with the British temperament. It is worth remembering this when anti-EU people today tell us that Britain is a country which has a temperament which naturally inclines to the extreme free market way of doing things, and membership of the EU means locking ourselves into a semi-socialist organisation.

    The reality is that most people in the UK today have almost no idea what the EU does, and their opposition to it is based largely on being fed a constant diet of anti-EU myths by most of the newspapers in this country. So I think we can come out fighting and tell them they are being hoodwinked, they are being fooled by people who have an ulterior motive.

    The most dishonest political party in this country is UKIP. It gains votes on the notion in is a simple “Britain for the British” party, but its opposition to the EU is largely based on support for extreme free market policies, and in fact in a wish to break and stand our country may make along with other European countries against our independence an democratic will being eroded by the power of big multi-national corporations to play one country against the other. Many people who vote UKIP do so even though their politics are leftish and they would never vote for the Tories let alone for a party which is like the Tories but more extreme. Why is it that we seem afraid to expose UKIP for what it is? UKIP is gaining ground from an unhappiness with the way the economy of this country is going, yet it is going that way because of the failure of the free market policies past government of the UK have endorsed, the present government is endorsing in more extreme forms, and UKIP wants to have in even more extreme forms than that.

    Blaming the EU for everything that’s wrong in this country has been a wonderful distraction for the political right to hide the real reason for the mess it’s in: their economic theories and the way they have not worked as they said they would. We should not let them get away with it. We should expose them for the way they are trying to fool the people into supporting the very opposite of what they really want. When the political right talk of “UK independence” what do they really mean? They mean freedom to sack people, freedom to force them to work long hours, freedom from having to confirm to some notion of human rights. They mean opposing the idea that governments of nations must now get together to fight the way that climate change, organised crime, and rapacious big business has no respect for international boundaries, and if we are to combat all these things and build defences against them, international co-operation is vital.

    We have not lost the argument against this. The polls say what they say because no-one has bothered to put the argument in favour.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Nov '12 - 1:51pm

    Richard Swales

    The trouble is, still holding a policy of joining the single currency after all that has happened,

    A lot of this trouble is actually due to reckless lending policies rather than to the single currency. The single currency led to lower interest rates, which led to a property boom in countries which had historically had higher interest rates, with prices pushed up to silly levels and too much of the economy based ion the idea that real wealth is generated by rising property prices, a sort of perpetual motion machine theory of economics. Those who lent money on this basis bear as much blame as those who just advocated a single currency. No-one HAD to lend the Greeks so much money, the single currency ought not to have stopped the idea that when you lend money your terms depend on some analysis of the situation and some evidence there is something going on with the lenders which means you have a good chance of getting repayment.

    In fact, a lot of what has damaged other countries and is put down to the Euro is also seen in the UK which has also had an unsustainable property boom leading to a perpetual motion machine view of the economy. A big reason it hasn’t collapsed is that we’re keeping the magical mouse mill [*] going by bringing in chocolate biscuits from Qatar, Russian billionaires etc.

  • support for membership of the EU does not mean we agree with everything it does and all the ways it does it. However, Liberal Democrats DON’T tend to hold to that position. The idea that we are all “starry eyed” about Europe is one of those tired old lines put about by our opponents, along with the one that we all wear beards and sandals, or all wholeheartedly agree with Nick Clegg

    The danger with the line “In Europe to reform the EU” is that it gives a lot away to our opponents, it helps build up their argument that the EU is fundamentally a bad thing.

    These reflections from Matthew deserve repetition, as does his observation that although low interest rates in the Euro enabled banks to lend recklessly, it certainly does not absolve the banks from responsibility. In fact the Euro remains popular in the countries that use the currency and in the medium and long term, the Pound is more vulnerable than the Euro.

    Obviously jedibeeftrix is entitled to his opinions, however just because he considers that “The second two comments= members of an electable party” does not mean that he would have the slightest of intentions of voting for the Lib Dems.

  • Liberal Eye 19th Nov '12 - 6:14pm

    That’s a pretty narrow margin of support for the Party’s position even against such an extreme alternative as exit. But that is our fault; we have allowed UKIP et al to define ‘exit’ as the alternative to the course the EU is set on. They have got away with framing the argument that way by default because we never really had an alternative plan – detailed criticisms perhaps for those that read the fine print, but that is a tiny minority of policy wonks.

    How many potential members never signed up and how many past ones lapsed because of EU policy? Quite a few I suspect not to mention those who continue in the Party but who would change their position if there was a different lead.

    There is a good case to be made for the EU which involves a different vision of where it should be going and how it might get there but I’m not holding my breath. I’m afraid it’s yet another example of just how inept the leadership is and how its organisation just isn’t delivering.

  • Richard Swales 21st Nov '12 - 4:24pm

    @Matthew, – in which case the party’s spokesmen should be making the case for joining the Euro now, to talk people round well before they vote. Having the policy on paper but doing nothing to defend it is just offering an open goal for the other parties.

  • David Allen 21st Nov '12 - 5:44pm

    “The idea that we are all ‘starry eyed’ about Europe is one of those tired old lines put about by our opponents”

    Well, if we are still committed to joining the Euro despite all its manifold problems, starry eyed is absolutely fair comment!

  • As Labour starts to move into sync with the Tory eurosceptics and both of them take fright at the UKIP challenge, what an opporttunity for the Lib Dems to up the ante as the ONLY pro-Europe party. Constructively working (within the EU) for reform and constant improvement – yes – but fundamentally fighting for the survival and success of the EU. Bear in mind that by any reckoning there is a pro-Europe minority within the UK far bigger than any percentage vote to which we are likely to aspire – many of them business leaders. Don’t you think they are getting worried now at the slide towards the European exit door? It has to be admitted that our EU advocacy has for years been lacking in conviction – almost apologetic indeed. Trying to look even more half-hearted will get us nowhere. Does anyone really think we will garner support by claiming to be the most energetic reformers of the EU?

    Let’s make a real effort to harness the pro-Europe vote, which will increasingly seek a real champion, setting out all the great rallying cries that have been clear ever since the 2nd world war and slaughtering the myths and lies constantly spewed out by europhobes.

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