UK’s Conservative and Labor Parties and Their Varying Positions on Brexit

Term Paper, 2020

17 Pages, Grade: 1.3

Free online reading



Historical Background The Road to Brexit
External Factors
Internal Factors

Literature review and methodology

Theoretical framework: Partisan politics

The Conservative Party

The Labor Party




On 23 June 2016, a national referendum was held in the United Kingdom (UK) with the following question: “Should the UK remain a member of the European Union (EU) or leave the EU?” Nearly 17,4 million citizens voted to leave and 16 million to remain, a margin of 1,269,501 votes. 3 years have passed since the referendum, and on 31st January 2020 it the UK left the European Union moving into a transition period. Delivering Brexit was not without controversies i.e. two Prime Ministers resigned, internal conflicts within the Conservative party were accentuated, Brexit Party was formed among others. This paper aims at shedding light on this issue from the UK’s internal perspective. Considering the fact that the UK is a parliamentary democracy, where the political parties are the major actors defining the internal and external politics, our unit of analysis are political parties. From this perspective, it would appear reasonable to take the two biggest parties of the political arena and analyze their policies: the Labor party and the Conservative party. The selection of the two parties is conditioned by the fact that historically they have had the biggest share of votes and parliamentary seats and consequently formed the government and made the political decisions.

Consequently, the research question covered in the paper is the following: to what extent do Labor and Conservative parties differ on Brexit? To answer the following question, we are going to adopt the theoretical framework of partisan politics, which would hopefully enable us to reveal the policy preferences of both parties, scrutinize their perspectives and ultimately make comparisons between them.

The paper will start with a short theoretical framework explaining what party politics is and why it is relevant for the issue. Then we will have a short literature review and introduce our methodology. This will be followed by a brief historical background on the UK presence in the European Union and Brexit processes. After this, we will turn to our main analysis of Labor and Conservative parties. And at the end of the paper we will come up with conclusions and make some policy recommendations for parties concerned.

Historical Background - The Road to Brexit

The UK’s breakup with the EU, also known as Brexit, dates far back beyond the June 2016 referendum. It started in 1975, when the new Labor government held the first referendum on whether Britain leaves or remains in the European Economic Community (EEC), i.e. the present-day European Union (BBC, 2020). Against this backdrop, we cannot point to one particular issue as the ultimate cause for Brexit. But rather we will explore historical factors (both internal and external) that shaped the Brexit debate and eventually UK’s final disassociation from the European Union on 31st January 2020.

External Factors

In 1957, six countries signed the Treaty of Rome which gave birth to the EEC, in an attempt to foster economic cooperation among themselves. These countries were Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, West Germany and the Netherlands. In the wake of the Second World War, it was believed that countries that traded with each other were less likely to wage war against each other (Pruitt, 2019). The six were later joined by the UK in 1973, whose decision to join was in part as a remedy for its post 1945 comparative economic decline, a decline that was reflected in low growth rates and a host of economic ills (Peele, 2004). Whereas Britain’s EU membership initially appeared to have only a limited impact on its domestic policies and governmental practices, it also had the potential of challenging traditional constitutional customs. The latter view was held by Eurosceptics within the UK's political spectrum, who were critical of the EU and its integration. Eurosceptics observed that the UK government’s scope for autonomous decision making was limited both by the global economic environment and by the effects of its EU membership. This narrative had always portrayed the UK as a non-committed member of the EU whose likely disassociation was a matter of time. Other views, suggested by Peele (2004) that portrayed UK as a non-committed EU member were: Britain’s late EU membership (in 1973 as opposed to 1955); her greater alignment with US than with the other EU member states, on positions in world affairs, for example, the US-Iraq war of 2003; her reluctance to replace the British Pound with EU’s single currency, the Euro (Peele, 2004).

Internal Factors

Unlike as it appears today, it was the Conservative Party, under Edward Heath (UK’s Prime Minister from 1970 to 1974) that sought to take the UK into the EU. At the time, this political move appealed to a few Conservative members of parliament (MPs), particularly those that believed in the idea of a federal Europe. But as time went-by, a few notable EU policies provoked Conservative opposition, for example, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Conservatives also disliked the style of EU policy making which emphasized negotiation and brokerage rather than the adversarial politics style well-known to Conservatives (and associated with the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy and two-party dominance), that seeks to emphasize opposing government policy rather than building consensus (Peele, 2004). In 1984, tensions between the EU and UK exploded under Margaret Thatcher (Conservative PM). These were sparked by the UK’s desire to reduce payments to the EU budget since the UK was the third-poorest country in the EU and was paying a lot more due to its lack of farms (Pruitt, 2019).

Then came Labor Party’s victory in 1997 under Tony Blair (Labor Prime Minister), a strong supporter of the EU. He worked to rebuild ties with the rest of Europe. During his time, the ban of 1999 on UK’s beef was lifted, reversal of court ruling in Luxembourg banning the sale of British Chocolate in Europe. On the contrary, his predecessor, Gordon Brown (Labor Prime Minister), was faulted for failing to defend the Lisbon Treaty that gave Brussels (Headquarters of the EU) broader powers over EU member states.

In 2010, the Conservative Party took reign through David Cameron also as Prime Ministers, in a bid to protect interests of Britain’s financial sector. He vetoed a EU treaty in 2011 and in 2013 promised to renegotiate Britain’s membership in the EU if his Conservative Party emerged victorious in the 2015 general elections. This promise was due to Britain’s economic unrest in the eurozone, a migrant crisis and increased Brexit pressure from the UK's Independent Party and other supporters. Having won the general election, Cameron went ahead to renegotiate migrant welfare payments, financial safeguards and easier ways for Britain to block EU regulations (Pruitt, 2019).

These new changes set in motion the February 2016 referendum, whose results portrayed a more divided UK, for example, Northern Ireland and Scotland (with fewer referendum votes) voted to remain in the EU, whereas England and Wales (with majority votes) voted in favor of Brexit. The outcome of the June 2016 referendum was a big disappointment to Cameron, who consequently resigned as Britain’s Prime Minister in June 2016, bringing an abrupt end to his six-year leadership. Prior to the referendum, Cameron had campaigned hard for Britain to remain in the EU bloc, arguing that Brexit would be an act of “economic self-harm” and that Britain was stronger, safer and better off inside the EU (The Guardian, n.d.). He also underestimated the backing “vote leave” would receive from his own party, especially from the popular former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who was the face of Brexit for the Conservatives.

Theresa May (Conservative) took over as Prime Minister in July 2016, following Cameron’s resignation. Her strategy, among others, was to set in motion within the EU Parliament, Britain’s intent to leave Europe's single market and control EU immigration. Unfortunately, her strategy did not fall through, as she failed three times to get UK Parliament support for the legislation needed to implement the deal she had agreed with the EU. Her resignation came after (in her final attempt to lure UK Parliamentarians to support her EU withdrawal Agreement Bill) she had offered a vote on whether to hold a second referendum. The offer had been designed to attract support from Labour MPs but rather enraged many Brexit-supporting Conservatives, who in-turn began openly opposing her Brexit policy while calling her to resign in June 2019 (BBC, 2019).

In July 2019, Boris Johnson (Conservative), a pro-Brexiter replaced Theresa May but also secured a re-election in December 2019, having defeated fellow Conservative Jeremy Hunt in the race to become leader of the Conservative Party and UK Prime Minister. Johnson’s pressing issue was to deliver Britain out of the EU, with or without a deal, by 31st October 2019; a deadline that he was unable to achieve until 31st January 2020. The greatest huddle that he had to overcome before the Brexit deal approval was “The Irish Backstop” i.e. how to keep open the border, for trade and travel, between the British province of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, a member of the EU. It would mean that Northern Ireland, excluding the rest of the UK, would still follow some EU rules on things such as food products (BBC, 2020).

On February 1, 2020, the 11-month Brexit transition period began and is expected to last up to December 31, 2020. What remains unchanged are most of the pre-Brexit arrangements that will remain in place while both sides establish the future of the EU-UK's new relationship.

Literature review and methodology

According to partisan theory (Hibbs 1992), variation in public policy decisions and outcome can, to a large extent, be explained based on political partisanship. Similarly, a great chunk of studies have analyzed partisan decisions on several topics such as the influence of environmental events on election voting, the connection between financial market index and political fortunes, and the illustrative potential of risk in the market. The premise that ‘parties do matter’ as derived from the stylized model of the political process in a ‘majoritarian democracy’ commend political parties for contributing existent choices and voters for voting for people who fruitfully execute what they desire (Lijphart 1984 as cited by Schmidt 1996). Britain’s differing position as against the European Union (EU) has classically been set on a complex interaction between politics and economic interest (Bank of England 2015:13-15; Moravcsik 1998:123 as cited by Jensen and Snaith 2016). Going back into history, in June 1975, the UK referendum had 67% of voters opting to stay in the European Community, fast forward in June 2016 exactly forty-one years later, the referendum held had 48.1% opting to stay in the EU. According to Matthew J. Goodwin and Oliver Heath (2016), the 1975 vote constituted a past incident of an unusual obsession, cutting across founded patterns of party competition, in particular with regard to the Labor party, which has seen the referendum solidify and aggravate internal ideological conflicts whereas the results of the June 2016 referendum that caused David Cameron to resign was partly orchestrated by the Eurocentric tradition within his own party. The situation indicates the differences that had been long seen as obvious within the UK’s domestic politics. Similarly, the Exit vote actually correlates with the neoclassical economic theory of improving one’s domestic economic strength for regional and international development.

Theoretical framework: Partisan politics

In recent years, many have argued on how and why government policies follow party inclination. Schmidt (1996, pg. 155) argues on the premise that “differences in the party composition of government are causally related to differences in public policy”. Proponents of this hypothesis conceive of politics as a market in which politicians and governments deliver policies in exchange for specific or generalized political demand and support. Many who argue based on this premise appreciate that politics offer actors (politicians and governments) an opportunity to provide policies in return for support. The theory of partisan politics explains partisan control on public policy and how differences based on parties’ ideological values, votes and office-seeking motives recount the policies that political parties pursue in their constituencies. Regardless of the above, Schmidt (1996; pg 155) states that “most market theories, partisan theory is premised upon the assumption, that the structure, the process and the results of the market depend on institutional and cultural circumstances which vary from country to country’’. To further explain the comparative study of differences in public policy in constitutional democracies, Schimdt (1996; pg. 155) indicates that proponents of partisan hypothesis argue on eight key propositions on linkages between social constituencies, parties and policy. He argues that, the social constituencies of political parties in constitutional democracies have distinctive preferences and successfully feed the process of policy formation with these preferences. Also, policy orientations of political parties broadly mirror the distinctive preferences of their social constituencies. Additionally, political parties are multi-goal organizations. Their major goals are office seeking and policy-pursuit. He added that incumbent parties choose policies which are broadly compatible with office-seeking, policy-pursuit ambitions and the preferences of the social constituencies. He further stated that governments can implement the policies that were chosen by the incumbent parties. Notably, regarding policy outputs, the proposition points that there exists a law-like tendency of partisan differences in public policy: cross-national variation, and within-nations differences, in public policy are significantly associated with - and, by inference, dependent upon - differences in the party composition of government. Furthermore, a change in the party composition of government is associated with - and, by inference, causally related to - changes in policy choices and policy outputs. Moreover, advanced partisan theory predicts partisan influence on policy in bivariate models and in multivariate explanatory models of public policy differences, controlling for the distribution of power in parliament and in extra

parliamentary arenas, institutional arrangements, adaptation to changing environments, socioeconomic circumstances and international interdependence, to mention only some of the variables. Finally, the proposition indicated that, the extent to which party differences matter in public policy is contingent upon a wide variety of factors. First deserving mention among these are: socioeconomic challenges and economic resources; the degree of vulnerability of national economies to international markets, secondly, the distribution of power resources among social classes and finally the incumbent party’s lead of the opposition party, measured by differences in vote and seat shares (Scharpf 1988: Chapter 11 ; Stephens 1979; Schmidt 1983; Esping-Andersen 1990; Keeler 1993 as cited by Schmidt 1996).

According to Schmidt, the major contributing factor of differences that exist between policy decisions and policy outcome in a democratic nation can be correlated to the formation of a government. There has been a considerable amount of debates about the cogent and quality criteria to the partisan formation of government. The current means to the assessment of government composition can be categorized into four basic elements namely the historiographic approach, the left-right hypothesis, the concept of the major party of the right and the right-centre-left trichotomy (Schmidt 1996). As identified in many policy areas, across the globe, structured partisan influences have taken shape in various policy decisions.

The Conservative Party

Historically, the Conservative party and the business have favored the entry of the UK into the European community. However, there have been Eurosceptics among Conservatives as well, for example, Enoch Powell, who thought that the entry to the European Economic Community (EEC) would undermine British sovereignty and traditional values (Taylor 2017). However, as it has been already mentioned, it was under the administration of Harold Macmillan, the Prime minister of the UK and the leader of the Conservative party when the UK first applied to join the EEC. Interestingly, the UK entered into the EEC in 1973 under the administration of Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, who had pro-European policy preferences (MacShane 2016).

Before the referendum of 2016, a conservative David Cameron delivered a speech persuading the citizens to vote against Brexit, mentioning “leaving the EU would threaten our economy and our national security” (Cameron 2016). The speech showed the persuasion of the Conservative party on the issue.

When Brexit appeared in political discourse at large, it had reverberations both in internal and international politics. The political realm of the UK was automatically divided into two parts: those who wanted to remain in the EU and those who wanted to leave. 479 out of 637 MP-s cast their ballot for remaining before the referendum. Among them, 185 conservatives voted for remaining and 138 voted for leaving (Clarke, Goodwin & Whitele 2017). Most of the cabinet members sided with David Cameron and those who had differing policy preferences were given the chance to advocate for leaving. Those figures, such as Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Michael Gove, John Whittingdale and so on joined by former London mayor and Conservative Boris Johnson. As it could be seen, two camps within the Conservative party were formed.

Amid larger public debates, the general position of the Conservative party was neutral, thus paving way for larger political discussions and allowing swing-voters to find their orientations. As a result, both sides were given an opportunity to communicate with their electorate and convey their messages. While building their own arguments on whether to leave or stay in the EU, conservative politicians resorted largely on long-lasting beliefs of national identity crystallized in English political discourse.

Identities are shortcuts defining the hallmark of the orientations that people have. Attributing different phenomena to identities, it becomes easier for political leaders to navigate everything attributing the actions of people to the norms accepted within those identities. To achieve this goal, the idea of “us versus them” is created. A content analysis was implemented by Nora Wenzl to understand how the theory of national identity was used by the members of the Conservative party to substantiate their policy preferences on whether to leave or stay in the EU (Koller, Kopf & Miglbauer 2019). The opponents of Brexit reinforced the fact that the cooperation between the UK and the EU was mutually beneficial and pragmatic, though accepted that there are some problems worth resolving. Against this background, they tried to create the identity of “Britishness'’ based on British exceptionalism and the fact that the international community admires their long-lasting democratic traditions. They also emphasize the greatness of Great Britain with the EU considering the latter an influential EU player (Koller, Kopf & Miglbauer 2019). Consequently, this subgroup created an image of “we” based on the idea of Britishness'’ on the one hand, and on the pragmatic EU-UK economic (and the uncertainty in case of leaving the EU) and political relations on the other hand, and the specific relations with the USA.

Naturally, the supporters of Brexit tried to create a more negative image of the EU. The latter was seen as a prison undermining the capabilities of the UK as a global actor since as an EU member country the UK was obliged to abide by the EU regulations. The cooperation between the EU and the UK is considered unbalanced, then the first party takes advantage of the resources of the second party unfairly. The only way out from this trap appears to be Brexit (Koller, Kopf & Miglbauer 2019) To sum it up, this group emphasized unfair relations and suppressed capabilities of the UK.

However, as it could be seen from the electoral manifesto of the Conservative party for the 2019 elections, one of the priorities of the party is to “get Brexit done”. As it could be seen, the successful implementation of Brexit and “unleashing Britain’s potential” are used interconnectedly in the Manifesto (2019). There is a perception that the first one is the only prerequisite for the second one.

The current economic stagnation and slowdown, which according to the Conservative party have been an intrinsic part of the UK for the last four years, relate to the indecisiveness of the British Parliament to put an end to Brexit. That is why the upcoming in the UK were detrimental in terms of defining the future of Europe. For Conservatives, the Brexit would take the country from a deadlock, build confidence among foreigners and direct the flow of FDI to the country, thus creating a benevolent entrepreneurial climate. They create an identity of Britishness and British majesty, which is suppressed by the EU like a lion in a cage. The conservatives see themselves as a messiah to implement the mandate given to them by the population in the referendum of 2016. As a result of the Brexit, the UK would become an equal partner of the EU, not a subordinate to it, having it own laws and regulations, monetary policy, trade policy, immigration system, own regulations in the spheres of worker’s rights, animal protection, agriculture and environment protection (The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto 2019).

The Labor Party

The Labor party was basically founded to champion for the rights of urban workers in the UK. This structural component attracted allies from powerful trade unions majorly because of similar policies, ideologies and structures. For decades, the center-left party attempted to capture the different interests of workers who formed its support base (Clark, Goodwin & Whiteley, 2017; Peele 2004).

Regarding the Labor party’s position on Brexit, one has to appreciate the history of the party’s position on the same. In retrospect, like conservatives, the laborists were greatly polarized about the UK joining the then European Economic Community (EEC). Some of its members were opposed to the idea of joining other European countries in a common market structure, citing that the UK will be compromising its sovereignty, its powerful position in the global political and economic plans (Taylor 2017).

However, the economic situation of the UK was bad hence some members of the Labor party became supportive of the idea of the UK in joining the EEC. Albeit skeptical, dubbed revisionists, proponents of UK’s participation in the EEC argued that the global economic arena was fast evolving and it was at its best interest to join the economic community and to ensure it retains its position as a global power. The economy of the UK was also not performing well hence compelling the UK to join.

As argued by Schmidt (1996), ideally, parties provide voters with preferences of how they want their desires implemented. Through perceptions, confidence in their party leaders and loyalty to their parties, voter’s attitudes towards policy are greatly influenced (Clark, Goodwin & Whiteley, 2017). Britons however did not adhere to this concept during the first Brexit attempt in 1975, the Scottish secession and referendum votes. During the first Brexit vote, the Labor party mainly advocated for the UK to leave the European Union (EU). However, after calculating the cost and benefits of membership in the EU, the labor-led Brexit vote saw a strong endorsement by the voters to remain in the EU. Similarly, the populace voted against the secession of Scotland and the change of electoral system, creating a notion that they were risk averse and preferred maintaining status quo (Clark, Goodwin & Whiteley, 2017).

Eurosceptics ran the renewed Brexit campaigns by capitalizing on the anxieties of the public regarding migration, the cost of EU membership, labor challenges among other concerns (Vasilopoulou, 2016). As expected, and being a major party, the Labor party was expected to be an influential party in the Brexit debate. In line with this expectation, the party declared its support for the UK's membership in the EU, in contrast with its position in the past (Vasilopoulou, 2016). Also, internal wrangles exposed the labor party, with accusations of its internal processes being undemocratic and without clarity, the party was once again polarized (Peele, 2004). Some of its members advocate remaining while others push for an exit.

It is also worthy to note that the above divisions within the party, coupled with ambiguity in the party greatly diminished the influence of the Labor party on the voters. The party leader, Corbyn, had previously advocated for the UK to leave the EU, in the 1975 campaign. In addition, the party attempted to depoliticize the EU membership debate in its leadership contest by being passive about the issue. This vagueness failed to give direction to its worker support base. It also squarely placed the party at the political center (Taylor, 2017; Vasilopoulou, 2016).

The Labor party support base can be analyzed in two ways. As aforementioned, the party was richly supported by workers in the UK and Union support further strengthened the influence of the party among workers. However, the continued support to Europeanize did not sit well with low status workers who felt that the UK’s integration in the EU will diminish their already limited employment opportunities. Inversely, the middle-income earners with rich and highly demanded human capital were pro-EU because of their high employability across the UK borders in other EU member states and therefore supported the integration.

The heightened ambiguity coupled with differing standpoints among workers and the Labor party leaders reduced the cue influence on its supporters. Firstly, because the party was not providing clear directions, and secondly because there was an increased awareness within voters about the fundamental impact Brexit vote had on their lives. Labor party persuasion was therefore limited and the votes were largely endogenous (Taylor 2017; Schmidt, 1996).

The Brexit vote spilled over to the 2019 general elections as expressed by the Labor Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in the Party’s Manifesto foreword. By referring to the 2019 elections as the Brexit Elections. In the Manifesto, the party once again attempted to depoliticize the Brexit issue, by largely dwelling on social issues that affect the Britons. The dwindling economy, unemployment and the climate emergency among others formed the issues of priority as presented by the party (Labor Party Manifesto, 2019).

The three year stretch between the Brexit vote and the 2019 election proved uncertain to the future of Britain with Prime Minister May attempting to negotiate a deal with the EU for a favorable exit. Consequently, the Labor party ruled out a no-deal Brexit by supporting a softer exit. They however did not support the presented deal by Prime ministers May and Boris, citing adverse effects it would have on workers’ rights, their support base. Conversely, the party reiterated the division in Britain and vowed to forge unity occasioned by the divisive Brexit vote by allowing the Britons to own the deal or no deal Brexit debate through a referendum (Labor Party Manifesto, 2019).

They largely viewed itself as the best placed party to reconcile the country. This, among the aforementioned campaign issues, was the platform they ran with in the 2019 campaign. They committed themselves to review the withdrawal agreement, by ensuring the protection of the UK workers interests in the EU by aligning their rights and a single market, better security arrangements as they continue to participate in the Union’s programmes (Labor Party Manifesto, 2019).


The larger discourse of Brexit is a well-discussed topic in British political realm, where political parties should have their credible policy preferences to attract voters. In this paper we have tried to disclose the approaches of two major British parties (Labor Party, Conservative party) and try to figure out the extent their positions on the issue differ.

On the one hand, we have the Conservative party, which initially advocated for the entry of the UK to the EEC. Gradually, many camps have arisen within the party some advocating and many others opposing the affiliation of the UK to the European family. Both sides widely used the concept of national identity to substantiate their positions. Such discussions reached their peak in 2016 when a national referendum was held. The Conservative Prime minister was a supporter of remaining in the EU and had to resign when the population of the UK voted for separating from the EU. During the recent parliamentary elections manifesto, the Conservative party elucidated their policy preferences, which was leaving the EU. From this perspective, the positions of Labor party and Conservative party totally differed.

Apparently, the Labor party have had to share the same dichotomy over the issue as the Conservatives. Initially expressing their dissent towards joining the EEC, factions arising within the party - with some members supporting membership and others opposing it- led to a somewhat skeptic membership. The party carried on this same trend as witnessed in the 2016 vote and the 2019 elections. This notwithstanding and after registering diminishing support, the Labor party attempted a strategy of depoliticizing the issue and portraying itself as best placed to unite the UK immense polarization occasioned by Brexit.

Consequently, initially both having ambiguous stances, two parties diverged on the Brexit issue with one advocating and the other opposing it during the recent electoral campaigns.


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UK’s Conservative and Labor Parties and Their Varying Positions on Brexit
University of Erfurt  (Willy Brandt School of Public Policy)
Public Policy
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
brexit, conservative, labor, parties, positions, their, uk’s, varying, Politics, EU, Policies, ideologies, Leave, Stay
Quote paper
Stephen Tete Mantey (Author)Julie Onyango (Author)Khachik Makyan (Author)Andrew Kisekka (Author), 2020, UK’s Conservative and Labor Parties and Their Varying Positions on Brexit, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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