Campaigning on Europe – members’ views

Please note that the title of this piece has been amended to reflect the content of the article.

You may remember, last November, taking part in a survey on members’ views on Brexit and the party’s campaigning on the future of UK–EU relations. Thanks to everyone who participated – 6,500 members, more than any previous survey of this type – and thanks to Greg Foster and Dan Schmeising at party HQ who organised it on behalf of the Federal Policy Committee. This article gives you the results.

The first question asked how you voted in the 2016 referendum. Completely unsurprisingly, over 91 per cent voted to Remain. Most of the rest couldn’t vote (for example because they were too young); just 2.5 per cent voted to Leave. No less than 95 per cent would describe themselves now as Remainers (more than four-fifths of whom chose the option ‘Yes, I am a Remainer and I am proud of it’) and just 1.3 per cent described themselves as Leavers (a third of whom – 25 people – were proud of it).

In response to the question, ‘Do you think people in your life who aren’t Liberal Democrats associate the current problems the country is experiencing – shortages of truck drivers, farmworkers, care workers and goods in shops – with Brexit?’, on a 0–6 scale, the average answer was 3.7: in other words, they do, but not all that strongly. Of course, the pandemic and the government’s feeble response have complicated the picture substantially, but this will change over time, as the impacts of Brexit become ever clearer. Indeed, if we’d asked the question now rather than two months ago, I suspect the response would have been stronger.

We next asked which EU-related policy areas the party ought to treat as a priority, given that the impact of Brexit is being felt across so many; people could choose three out of a list of fourteen. Trade came top, listed by more than half of respondents. The others, in order, were: climate change and energy; freedom of movement and immigration; rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU; standards for environment and labour issues; scientific collaboration; cultural, artistic and educational links; environment and biodiversity; defence and security; health policy; justice and police cooperation; foreign policy (countries outside the EU); international development; and crime.

The remaining questions dealt with how people thought the party should communicate its existing policy (as decided by party conference – to build closer links between the UK and EU, leading in the longer term to joining). We asked (on a 0–6 scale) whether people thought that (a) people who aren’t Liberal Democrats and (b) party members and supporters, would like to hear us talk more about building a better relationship between the UK and EU, short of joining the EU; and whether they’d like to hear us talk more about the UK rejoining the EU. For each audience, respondents thought that ‘building a better relationship between the UK and EU, short of joining’ would be a better message than ‘the UK rejoining the EU’ (by 4.2 to 3.1 for non-Lib Dems and 4.9 to 4.5 for party members and supporters). All those are on the positive side of the results (3.0 is the mid-point), though only just so for a rejoin message for non-members.

We asked similar questions about the party’s target audience at elections: ‘The Liberal Democrats should pitch our appeal mainly to former remain voters by emphasising our belief that the UK should join the EU’ (score 3.6) and ‘The Liberal Democrats should pitch our appeal mainly to former leave voters by stressing the need to build a better relationship between the UK and EU, and avoiding talking about joining one day’ (score 3.9) – both positive, but neither exactly ringing endorsements. The combined position – ‘The Liberal Democrats should pitch our appeal to both former remain and former leave voters – even though this may be a less clear message – by stressing the need to build a better relationship between the UK and EU in the first instance, leaving open the possibility of rejoining’ – proved more popular, with an average score of 4.5.

The final question asked people to choose between those three positions. The combined message was a very clear winner, chosen by 65 per cent of respondents. The ‘appeal to remainers’ message won the support of 19 per cent and the ‘appeal to leavers’ message 16 per cent. Although we tried to force the issue by stressing the likelihood of the combined message being a less clear one, you were having none of it!

Thanks again to everyone who took part. The FPC’s task is to take that core message and put policy flesh on it. Look out for our policy paper on the future of the trading relationship between the EU and the UK, and Single Market membership, due for debate at spring conference.

* Duncan Brack is the Chair of the Federal Policy Committee Europe Group

* Duncan Brack is the Editor of the Journal of Liberal History and former Vice Chair of the Federal Policy Committee.

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18 Comments

  • Thanks for this feedback, Duncan. I voted Remain and campaigned for a second vote, but my feeling now is that when we talk of Brexit we risk being seen as crying over spilt milk. “It’s happened, get over it” is the advice many gave us, rather vindictively, when we were campaigning, but it has its merits.
    Most of us know the EU wasn’t perfect, but although ‘take back control’ is a loathsome slogan designed for deluded little Englanders, there are ways we can benefit from Brexit, and revising our agriculture policies is one example of how we can move faster than the EU.
    It would be good if we could demonstrate to the Leavers that in fact they were duped by the right-wing Tories into removing Cameron and installing them, with Brexit merely a handy instrument for achieving that, and that the ERG members were willing to take the hit of economic damage because they knew only the poor would suffer, but even that is risky, because people who get that sort of message don’t always thank the messenger.

  • This topic prompted me to think about how the EU has fared since we left. The re-stated federalist ambitions of Germany and France seem to be no more than rhetoric. The problem of sovereignty seems to be growing together with the unloved nature of Brussels. The EU seems to be settling for the trappings of state without any of the substance. As a world power, it seems to have shrunk. Does it have a foreign policy? Does it have a defence policy? I’m not suggesting this is due to the absence of the UK. I rather think that it is simply the decay of a political project that has now run its course.

  • Chris Moore 13th Jan '22 - 3:59pm

    Peter, bar a small minority of players in the European institutions themselves, neither European leaders nor voters want the EU to become a state, supplanting nation states.

  • Chris Moore 13th Jan ’22 – 3:59pm:
    …bar a small minority of players in the European institutions themselves, neither European leaders nor voters want the EU to become a state, supplanting nation states.

    ‘German government will push for a European federation’ [November 2021]:
    https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/german-government-will-push-for-a-european-federation/

    The Social Democrats, Greens and the liberal FDP announced that a ‘traffic light’ coalition between the three parties would push for the development of a fully-fledged European federation.

    According to the coalition agreement presented on Wednesday, the coalition wants to use the ongoing Conference on the Future of Europe as a starting point to reform the EU.

    The conference should lead to a constitutional process and ultimately to the “development of a federal European state,” the document reads.

    “A sovereign Europe is the key for our foreign policy,” said Olaf Scholz, who will likely be inaugurated as chancellor in the second week of December.

    “As an economically strong and the most populous country in the heart of Europe, it is our mission to enable, foster and advance a sovereign Europe,” he added.

  • Interesting, if largely predictable results.

    I’d suggest that the question on the messaging is a leading one, given that the three messages were labelled as appealing to remain voters, leave voters, or both remain and leave voters respectively. Obviously most people will choose the message that the question already states will have the broadest appeal.

    But without testing the extent to which each message actually does appeal (shorn of a pre-judged conclusion written into the question), how can anyone know?

  • Jeff, re your link: that would be ‘a small minority,’ then. As it always has been. The chances of the other 26 members of the EU all agreeing to a federation state about as high as mine of winning the Australian Open.

  • Cassie 13th Jan ’22 – 5:16pm:
    The chances of the other 26 members of the EU all agreeing to a federation state about as high as mine of winning the Australian Open.

    ‘The EU is Germany writ large’ [March 2019]:
    https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/03/15/paul-lever-the-eu-is-germany-writ-large/

    Sir Paul Lever, the former UK ambassador to Germany, on Europe after Brexit.

    As Britain prepares for Brexit, what will happen to the EU that we leave behind? To understand the EU and its direction of travel, you have to understand Germany – the bloc’s richest, most populous and most powerful nation.

  • Perhaps the German attitude is because they know – from their own form of government – what a “federal” state really means. I.e. it’s something quite different from the centralised form of government from which we suffer in the UK; it’s inherently far more decentralised & devolved. The German Laender have far more power relative to Berlin even than Scotland or Wales have relative to Westminster.

    I’ve always suspected part of the problem in arguing with the Eurosceptics is that we’re just talking a different language …

  • John Marriott 13th Jan '22 - 7:26pm

    You can believe the warm words of the EU federalists if you want. Most of the citizens of the remaining 26 are far more interested in making a living than in any European Super State. I would argue that what most people want – and I include non EU countries like ourselves – is that decisions that affect their welfare are taken as close to them as possible. That’s what federalism can deliver. And it often does.

  • Interesting comments, but inconclusive. Macron seems to want a country of Europe. Many in Brussels seem to agree. Germany recently said the same, but Dominic tells us that the Germans see it differently despite the words used. Cassie says it will never happen. If we are to seek to rejoin, then we need to know what we are joining. If rejoining is Lib Dem policy then this question is crucial.

    I rather think that my original comment is about right. Cassie is probably right. The EU will keep churning out bureaucratic legislation that increasingly regulates a federal status to the nth degree, but the bigger issues, at a national level, will be left to the individual member states by default. Germany, gas and Ukraine are words that sum up the difficulty of a common foreign policy.

    Assume for a moment that this assessment is about right. Is it stable and sustainable?

    The forward journey towards ever closer union was clear. This is not. It creates many questions, potential conflicts and questions about the EU entity. At any given international event, whose opinion counts, the EU country involved or the EU?

  • Chris Moore 13th Jan '22 - 8:57pm

    Hi Peter,

    Our policy will not be to rejoin.

    But I do think the UK is very likely to go back into the Customs’ Union at some point.

  • Although I am no longer a party member, I endorse the more nuanced message that was the majority choice. It can be presented as a positive dynamic action & programme, rather than a static & perhaps stale policy position engendering small actions now leading to a brighter future in Europe later (aka. at the right time). The critical thing will be to have the right leader to spearhead this message …. recognizing that EU-related issues will not be central stage … clean , effective honest government actively working to bring up the left behind??

  • david franks 14th Jan '22 - 10:34am

    Party policy is to re-join at some time in the future and meanwhile to build a stronger relationship with the EU. For me a United States of Europe holds lots of hope and no fears.

  • Peter Hirst 14th Jan '22 - 2:31pm

    The closer we are to Europe the easier and more effective will be our campaigning on a whole rath of issues including the economy, the environment, immigration, smuggling, crime, international relations, race relations, minority rights, human rights and improving our democracy. This is obvious at least to me and if articulated well will resonate with most of the electorate.

  • Andrew Tampion 16th Jan '22 - 7:04am

    Andy Daer “It would be good if we could demonstrate to the Leavers that in fact they were duped by the right-wing Tories into removing Cameron and installing them…”
    Because telling voters that they’re fools who were deceived by something you saw through is always a vote winner.
    Also what do you say to the Leave voter who reminds you that Cameron was replaed by Theresa may not by a hard Brexiteer and that Theresa May was not brought down by Brexiteers but by Remainers who voted down the closer ties with the EU that the Liberal Democrats now call for?

  • Andrew Tampion 16th Jan '22 - 7:08am

    David Franks “For me a United States of Europe holds lots of hope and no fears.”
    That’s lovely for you and those who agree with you. However the Brexit vote in 2016 shows that your’s may be a minority view. What do you propose to do convince those voters for whom even freedom of movement was too much?

  • Naturally the 1.3% are overrepresented in the comments

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