THE BREXIT VOTE: "THE WHO'S AND THE WHY'S

The Brexit result of last summer shook the political establishment to the core and has had a seismic effect on the state of Britain, and indeed the continent of Europe. Broadly, 52% of people in the UK voted to leave, so everyone in the country should know someone who voted for our departure from the European Union. Yet apparently, Remainers and Brexiteers individually seem to know very few of those who voted the opposite way to themselves - perhaps accounting for the shock on both sides, when the country decided to leave. 

A psephological analysis is clearly needed to fathom these deep divisions, to map out these two camps, and to ascertain the factors at work and their complex interplay. Numerous academic groups from not only British, but European and other universities, have focused on different aspects of what amounted to an electoral phenomenon. Age, wage and educational levels are all indicators which can be measured and have been examined. Harder to quantify but equally important, are more abstract indicators, based on value systems and emotions, which do not dictate votes in a logical fashion. 

Immigration: The Shadow Not the Reality
The fact that voters expressing fears about immigration often but not always, tended to reside in areas with low immigration, would indicate that scaremongering tactics used by the Leave campaign and notably UKIP, rather than personal experience, were highly successful in influencing voters, particularly when set beside the fact that not only in London, but most of Britain’s biggest cities where the strongest immigrant concentrations are to be found, did NOT vote to Leave, indeed several to Remain by substantial margins. 

Understanding how Brexit happened is one of the only things to be gained from the Remainers’ point of view, from an otherwise disastrous scenario. Before beginning however, some of the usual caveats in any study of statistics: sample sizes for the studies varied. Postal voting patterns tended to complicate otherwise apparent trends. 

The following results are largely drawn from the British Election Study (BES) which was based on a considerable sample of 31,000 respondents:- 

Anecdotal evidence in the form of interviews, might also be mentioned, and whilst evidently the view of one individual cannot be taken to represent community wide views, every comment on the vote offers at least a grain of insight into it and should be treated as useful. Even those who do not necessarily tell the truth about the way they voted, may offer something of a sense of societal pressures and expectations.

In the immediate aftermath of the election result, statistical evidence pointed to one clear trend: that older voters tended to vote for the Brexit, but that is so broad a definition as to be perhaps meaningless. “The old sacrificing the young” was the cry of many disappointed Remainers when the result emerged (greatly resented by older Remainers in every category, in inferring that ‘Leave’ was a stupidity of the more experienced). This as opposed to the more easily influenced superficial mass, some of whom regardless of age, thought that money paid to the EU “sent to Brussels” for UK’s profitable membership in the economic union, was on a par with money paid to African charities ”… and better off spent at home” to which many of them incidentally, are also opposed. 

What was seen as anecdotal, something conveyed largely by interviews with older people outside polling stations, has been borne out by the data - from which it seems clear that the age-gap did have an impact. Of the 20 youngest population authorities in the UK, 16 voted to remain, but of the 20 oldest population authorities, 19 voted to leave. Support for leave among people aged over 65 years was found to be some 31 percentage points greater than support among people aged 18-24 years old. 

An aspect of this can be related to values - a greater identification with the option of a distant, not in living memory “pre-immigration Great Britain”, where national borders and national customs were perhaps valued more highly than today; myths relentlessly retailed by the extreme Brexit tabloids. Patriotism tends to be stronger among the generation, now a tiny number, who experienced the Second World War and those born immediately after the war. The idea that abstract ideas, or generalized discontent in feelings may have played an important role in the Brexit vote, rather than concrete concerns is illustrated in other ways too. 

Immigration was a major theme of the campaign. Who can forget UKIP’s infamous and shameful “Breaking Point” poster, which featured a broad phalanx of middle-eastern refugees, inferring them to be awaiting entry into the UK – it was in fact a news photograph of these boat people seeking to cross the Slovenian border in the Balkans, issued simultaneously with the Leave campaign announcing the utter and shameful fiction, notably associated with the politician who is now Foreign Secretary, that 70 million Turks were on their way to the UK. Although many Brexiteers agreed that the poster image was offensive (indeed Michael Gove claimed he “shuddered” when he saw it), it was easy for the Leave campaign to exploit an extant hostility towards “job-stealing” immigrants from eastern Europe, along with a fear of an influx of refugees from Syria, to imply that ongoing EU membership would invariably involve an intake of quotas on people fleeing the war zone. In fact only a tiny number of Syrians have been allowed into the UK, probably less than many other EU members. It is not a record of which the British should be proud.

The demagogic use of the refugee issue seems to have worked well for Brexiters in encouraging votes to Leave, since it seems that, in reality, in many communities, those voting for Brexit did not have personal experience with immigrants. One study by Italo Colantone, the assistant professor of economics at Bocconi University and Piero Stanig, assistant professor of political science at the same institution, found “no evidence of a correlation between support for Brexit and the proportion of either immigrants or new immigrants in a region. If anything, it seemed that areas with more arrivals were more likely to vote Remain, and areas with fewer arrivals supported Leave.” The study noted that in areas like the Tees Valley and Durham, the vote for the Brexit was a strong 60%, and yet these are areas with the lowest rate of new arrivals from abroad. Poignantly a BBC interview in Sunderland with carworkers, seeking to explain to the wider public why Nissan employees had voted to Leave, even after their employers had explained that their new factory was to be built to serve the European market, voting so it seemed against their own expectations of continuing employment. One older worker, asked if there were many EU immigrants in Sunderland, said he personally had never seen one… but they “had heard about ‘Romanians and Bulgarians pouring in down south,’ and they didn’t want that.” So much for the fabled tabloids: “The Sun”, “Daily Mail” and “Daily Express’, doing their bit in the propaganda campaign, before and during the referendum. 

Of course the example of London is key to the reality - it contains the 5 areas with the most immigrants and yet it voted overwhelmingly to stay. One explanation for this may be that immigrants may choose to move to areas which are more open to immigration. As noted above, additionally Britain’s largest cities: Glasgow, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle, Leeds, who together with London, have the largest existing concentrations of immigrants, voted Remain, excepting only Birmingham and Sheffield (with tiny majorities to leave). So it wasn’t the big cities that objected via the ballot box. 

Overall, it seems to strongly indicate that it was not actual experience of living in a mixed migrant community that has fuelled suspicion of the principle of freedom of movement, but rather an abstract idea of migrants, one that is shaped by fear. In rural areas the presence of Europeans being employed in the poorly paid agricultural/horticultural industries, did certainly influence voters in such rural regions. Thus counties like Herefordshire, with no ‘left-behind industries’ and no large cities nor existing immigrant communities, nevertheless, with a big labour-intensive fruit-farming industry, saw an inflow of Europeans, most of whom were seasonal workers (without which those industries would fail), at the referendum returned big Leave votes. Other emotional indicators and values have been analyzed in various studies of the Brexit result. 

To return to the values associated with the older generation, it seems that there are correlations between Leave votes and certain, broadly conservative ideas. People in favour of the death penalty and harsher prison sentences, who oppose equal opportunities for women and homosexuals, were apparently much more likely to support Leave – at a rate of around 50 percentage points. There seems to be a nexus of socially conservative values which correspond to the older generation, who were born before the abolition of the death penalty (1965) and the decriminalization of homosexuality (1967). 

Additionally, in terms of ‘emotional values’, an analysis undertaken by Bastian Jaeger of Tillburg University, has found consideration of behavioral psychology and political actions informative, when considering the Brexit vote. Using as indicators the ‘Big Five’ personality traits (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism), Jaeger has found a strong link between ‘openness’ and a vote to remain in the EU, as ‘openness seems to be the prime candidate to capture those ‘European’ values which stand for opening national borders to free movement, trade, and immigration’. 
In the London borough of Hackney, which has a youthful, artistic, multiethnic population, chiming with the values of openness, only 21.4% of its residents elected to leave the EU. 

This is not to say there were not certain areas where more concrete effects of being part of the EU, corresponded to votes for leave. A group of six wards in the Banff and Buchan area in north Aberdeenshire in Scotland had a strong Leave majority of 61% - this is an area which has been aggrieved for a long time about the EU's common fisheries policy. In another example of a strong fishing community using the Brexit vote, to voice grievances about changes to their livelihood through EU regulations, in Shetland, the 567 voters in the combined polling districts of Whalsay and South Uist had an extremely high Leave vote of 81%. Here fisherman have found themselves fined for breaches of fishing quotas and, as a result, have gown disillusioned with the EU. The ward with the second highest vote to leave was 80.3% in Waterlees Village in Cambridgeshire. This is an area which has seen a considerable rise in East European migrants, who undertake low-paid work in food processing factories and farms in the locality, and tensions between them and British residents have increased. Yet logic dictates that if British people don’t choose that work, then businesses have to go further afield to recruit labour. 

Impacts on livelihood have certainly had an impact on the Brexit vote. Italo Colantone and Piero Stanig’s analysis examining “import shock,” the effect of Chinese imports on regions, has found a clear correlation between the suffering of an area’s industry due to increased competition with China, and voters heading towards parties that pledge protectionism and national self-interest. Though their study looks across Western Europe generally, in the case of England they cite the example of inner London and Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire, as evidence of this link. In inner London just 28% of people voted Leave, and Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire 56% of voters did. According to their statistical analysis of the 28 percentage points between these 2 regions, at least 18 points “are attributable to the difference in the intensity of the “import shock” between the two regions.” 

Nottinghamshire was once a hub of the labour intensive coal mining industry, closing its last mine in 2015, and is often associated as a factor in Britain’s drawn out industrial decline. As a result, it may be actually be that it was the impact of globalisation, and the dwindling of British manufacturing, rather than immigration that has fostered the pro-Brexit vote. Similarly, people engaged in low-skilled and more manual occupations, those associated with manufacturing for example, were much more likely to support leaving the EU, than those who work in more secure professional or skill-based occupations: on average the leave vote among the former was 71% but among the latter was only 41%. 

Over 70% of people in low-skilled communities like Tendring (which covers Clacton) voted for Brexit, over 70% of people in very highly-skilled communities like Cambridge voted to remain in the EU. 

Wages have proved to be crucial in identifying the population who have been “left behind” and therefore turned to Brexit. Two economists were commissioned by the FT to examine the relationship between wage growth and past support for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), on the basis they were likely to vote for Brexit, a reasonable premise. 

They found a clear connection between a lack of wage growth and the share of the vote going to UKIP at the 2015 general election. In underprivileged working class communities like Castle Point in Essex (which had one of the highest Leave votes), the real median wage had declined by 13% since 1997. The spatial distribution of Leave votes was correlated with low and stagnating real wage levels. Equally, it has been found that inhabitants of the poorest households were much more likely to vote for Brexit than those in wealthy households. Among households where the income was less than £20,000 per year, the average support for leave was 58% but in households with incomes over £60,000 per year support for leaving the EU was only 35%. 

The unemployed also proved to be much more likely to vote for Brexit (at 59%) whilst among the fully employed, the total stood at 45%. This relates clearly to the argument about the “winners and losers” of globalisation. Larry Davidson, writing in the Guardian, expressed the view that the Brexit was clearly “a protest against the economic model that has been in place for the past three decades”. 

Between 2011 and 2014, nearly one-third of the UK’s population experienced relative income poverty. Authorities that recorded some of the highest levels of support for Brexit include the working-class communities of Castle Point, Great Yarmouth, Mansfield, Ashfield, Stoke-on-Trent, and Doncaster. Voters might not have readily identified that imports from China had affected their standard of living, but presumed instead that they had been replaced by foreign workers coming from the Schengen zone. Nonetheless it is reasonable to assume that many thought immigration is itself to blame for the financial woes of certain areas. Apparently nearly 90% of those people (who thought immigration was bad for the economy) supported Leave, compared with just under 10% for those who thought immigration was beneficial for the economy.

If those in poorly skilled jobs have tended to vote for Brexit, it is unsurprising therefore that many analysts have focused on an associated condition - namely education. The BBC’s report on Brexit voting found that education levels had a higher correlation with the voting pattern than any other major demographic measure from the census. The statistics are indeed striking: analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that support for leaving the EU was 75% among those who lacked qualifications but just 27% among those who had achieved the highest level of education, a difference of nearly 50 percentage points. Support for leave was about 30 percentage points higher among those with GCSE qualifications or below, than it was for people with a university degree. The “left behind” who voted in droves for the Brexit, possessing fewer qualifications, seem to have found it harder to adapt to the globalised model and challenges that increased competition have presented. 

Faced with the influx of EU nationals, that lack of adaptability has proved very costly to certain communities. An interesting aspect of the analysis of education is however how it can affect values. According to political scientists Hainmueller and Hiscox, education acts as a “socialising agent” which affects peoples’ attitudes and transmits slightly more open and liberal values. A case in point in the fact that graduates living in low-skilled communities (defined as places where 10% of the local population are university educated), were more likely to vote for Brexit, and more similar to those with low education, than graduates who live in high-skilled communities (defined as places where 60% of the local population are university educated). Student populations were seen very significantly to affect the voting - the highest Remain vote seen in the country was 87.8% in the Market ward in central Cambridge, an area with numerous colleges and a high student population. As a county, Cornwall voted to leave, but one of its six parliamentary constituencies, Truro and Falmouth, voted 53% to Remain. This could be linked to a significant student population. Moreover, in Lincoln, which voted 57% to Leave, Carholme ward stood out with a 63% vote to Remain, possibly as this ward includes Lincoln University and 43% of the residents are students. Plymouth voted 60% Leave, but Drake ward which includes the university, had the city's highest Remain vote at 56%. 

Higher education and voting to Remain may well be because of the higher education system’s awareness of how much a Leave vote would affect the sector. Just prior to the referendum, the heads of 103 universities issued an open letter in which they expressed how they were ‘gravely concerned’ about the impact of a Leave vote on their universities and students. They asserted that, ‘every year, universities generate over £73 billion for the UK economy - £3.7bn of which is generated by students from EU countries, while supporting nearly 380,000 jobs. Strong universities benefit the British people - creating employable graduates and cutting-edge research discoveries that improve lives.’ Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group noted that a departure from the EU would bring about ‘significant uncertainty’ for Britain’s 24 leading universities. 

Some deny that the vote would have an effect using an argument similar to 'the NHS myth', that circulated prior to the vote - namely that money that would now not be paid into the EU budget could be channeled into the university system instead. There were also arguments that British universities could now charge exorbitant fees to students from the EU zone, of the kind currently charged to overseas students. These are all ‘unknowns’ however, but what is clear is that within the EU, British universities benefit from £1.2 billion a year in European research funding. According to the UK government’s own ‘balance of competences’ review, published in 2014 under the coalition, to analyse what EU membership means for the UK’s national interest: ‘the UK does exceptionally well from the EU’s current seven-year research budget, Framework Programme 7 (FP7) [the predecessor to Horizon 2020], receiving €6.1 billion (15.4 per cent of the funds allocated to date, second only to Germany which has received 16.1%’). 

Brexit supporters argue that the UK could now, from outside of the EU do as ‘associated countries’ like Israel and Norway do, and belong within the research programmes from outside of the EU umbrella. However Mike Galsworthy, co-founder of Scientists for EU, says that, ‘as an associated country, the UK would have a much diminished say in the shape of that programme’. Furthermore, no country has ever gone from full member status to being an ‘associated country’.

If education or lack of it, seems to have played a major role in bringing about Brexit, and will, sadly be one of its major victims, it might be worth returning to some of the caveats cited by analysts about seeking patterns in the Brexit vote. 

Whilst there were some clear trends, it is important to remember that no single factor alone determined the departure of Britain from the European Union. 

Nor was it devoid of surprises. Whilst support for Leave was higher – by around 18 percentage points among people from white British backgrounds, than it was among people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, or other white backgrounds, there were some cases in which this pattern was broken. In Ealing and Hounslow, west London boroughs with many voters of Asian origin, the ethnic correlation went against the national picture and a greater number of Asian voters was connected to a higher Leave vote. Looking closer we can see an absence of fellow feeling -tensions between older immigrant communities, who have long settled in the UK, and ‘the new foreigners’.  Immigrant communities but from the EU, who have different languages, lifestyles, religions and values. 

The vague and emotional category of feeling disillusion with politicians and ‘unwanted change’ called the protest vote, which seems to cover most of the Brexit sentiment, covers a range of concrete factors such as age, education, and wages, but it is the way these intersect geographically with a lack of opportunities that sealed Britain’s fate last June. 

Since the economic future cannot be known or even guessed at, how the UK, perhaps truncated if Scotland departs, will fare from Brexit, is even more uncertain.

Sara Bielecki