Why did Britain vote for Brexit? What was the relative importance of social class, age, and immigration? And to what extent did the vote for Brexit map on to past campaigns by Ukip? Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath use aggregate-level data to analyse the Brexit vote in a paper forthcoming in Political Quarterly. They summarise the findings.
The referendum result is now well-known. Leave won its strongest support in the West Midlands (59 per cent), East Midlands (59 per cent) and North East (58 per cent) but attracted its weakest support in Scotland (38 per cent), London (40 per cent) and Northern Ireland (44 per cent). The Leave vote surpassed 70 per cent in 14 authorities, many of which had been previously targeted by Ukip, like Boston and Castle Point. Leave also polled strongly in Labour-held authorities in the north, winning over 65 per cent in places like Hartlepool and Stoke-on-Trent. At the constituency level it has been estimated that while three-quarters of Conservative seats voted Leave, seven in ten Labour seats also did.
Such areas contrast sharply with strongholds of support for Remain, such as including Lambeth, Hackney, Haringey, Camden and Cambridge. Of the 50 authorities where the Remain vote was strongest, 39 were in London or Scotland.
Such results point toward deeper divides, like those outlined in earlier research on the ‘left behind’ voters who propelled UKIP into the mainstream. But to what extent was the vote to Leave the EU motivated by the same currents? To explore this question, we draw on data from 380 of 382 counting regions in the UK and link this to census data from 2011 (excluding Gibraltar and Northern Ireland for which we lack comparable data on some variables). Our analysis is based on aggregate data, so we need to be cautious about drawing inferences about individuals. Nonetheless, the data still provide a useful snapshot.
The Leave vote was much higher in authorities where there are substantial numbers of people who do not hold any qualifications, but much lower in areas that have a larger number of highly educated people. Fifteen of the 20 ‘least educated’ areas voted to leave the EU while every single one of the 20 ‘most educated’ areas voted to remain. In authorities with below average levels of education, Leave received 58 per cent of the vote but in authorities with above average levels of education it received 49 per cent. There were places where the Leave vote was lower than expected based on the average levels of education, which tended to be in Scotland and London. If we exclude London and Scotland from our analysis, then the association between education and the Leave vote becomes far stronger.
There is also a clearly identifiable though slightly weaker association between age and support for Leave. Of the 20 ‘youngest’ authorities 16 voted to Remain. By contrast the Leave vote was much stronger in older areas. Of the 20 oldest local authorities 19 voted to Leave.
What about ethnic diversity and immigration? Did appeals to end free movement have particular resonance in communities where there were large numbers of EU migrants? On the face of it, the answer appears to be no. Of the 20 places with the fewest EU migrants, 15 voted to leave. By contrast, of the 20 places with the most EU migrants 18 voted to remain. In many areas that were among the most receptive to Leave there were hardly any EU migrants at all.
We can get a clearer idea of the joint impact of these factors by carrying out a multivariate regression analysis. Table 1 presents results from a series of linear regression models. The dependent variable is support for Leave. In Model 1 education and age have a significant positive effect on the Leave vote. If anything, the effect of education on the Leave vote might have been slightly stronger than the effect of age (at least at the aggregate level). But even in places that had similar levels of education, support for Leave was noticeably higher in older communities than younger ones. By contrast, the level of European migration has a significant negative effect on the Leave vote. Places with many EU migrants tended to be less likely to vote Leave. Lastly, taking into account these factors the Leave vote was noticeably lower in London and Scotland. The results for Scotland are especially striking – the Leave vote was 22 points lower than what might have been expected given the level of immigration and educational and age profile of the country.
Notes: *** denotes p<0.005; ** denotes p<0.05; * denotes p<0.10
It might be tempting to assume that immigration played no part in delivering Brexit. However, a slightly different picture emerges if we consider changes in levels of EU migration. Data on recent change is only available for England and Wales and so in Model 2 we restrict our analysis to this subset of cases.
Controlling for the effect of overall migration and the other variables in Model 1 (excluding Scotland), those places which experienced an increase in EU migration over the last 10 years tended to be somewhat more likely to vote Leave (b=0.51; p=0.007). Thus, even though areas with relatively high levels of EU migration tended to be more pro-remain; those places which had experienced a sudden influx of EU migrants over the last 10 years tended to be more pro-Leave. This finding is consistent with the view that it is sudden changes in population that are most likely to fuel concern about immigration.
The results presented so far are consistent with research on Ukip, which emphasizes the party’s appeal among older, working-class, white voters who lack qualifications and skills. Thus, to a certain extent the factors that helped to explain rise of Ukip also help to explain why the British voted for Brexit. This comes out incredibly clearly in Figure 1, which considers the association between support for Ukip at the 2014 European Parliament elections and support for Brexit at the 2016 referendum. The R-square is 0.73, indicating a very strong relationship. By and large, then, authorities that were the most likely to vote for Brexit were the same ones that had given Ukip its strongest support two years earlier.
However, this clearly is not the whole story. Whereas the average support for Ukip across all authorities in 2014 was 29 per cent, the average support for Leave was 53 per cent. Where did these additional votes come from? Many insurgent parties start life by appealing to a narrow section of society but then, as they grow, they try to widen their appeal into new sections of society. Is this what Ukip’s populist Eurosceptic message achieved?
The answer is both yes and no. Places with older populations are both more likely to have voted for Ukip in 2014 and more likely to have voted Leave in 2016. However, support for Leave in 2016 is slightly less polarized along age lines (r = 0.34) than support for Ukip was in 2014 (r = 0.45). One explanation for this is that the Leave campaign managed to mobilise younger people than Ukip did. By contrast public support for Brexit (r = 0.53) is more polarized along education lines than support for Ukip was (r = 0.21).
Thus, to a certain extent, the 2016 referendum result magnified class divisions within Britain that were already evident in earlier years, and which parties like Ukip had been actively cultivating. Lastly, support for Leave (r = -0.44) is slightly more polarized along immigration lines than even Ukip was in 2014 (r = -0.36). This points to the hardening of what some term a ‘cosmopolitan vs provincial’ divide.
Our analysis reveals how the 2016 referendum gave full expression to deeper divides in Britain that cut across generational, educational and class lines. The vote for Brexit was anchored predominantly, albeit not exclusively, in areas of the country that are filled with pensioners, low skilled and less well-educated blue-collar workers and citizens who have been pushed to the margins not only by the economic transformation of the country, but by the values that have come to dominate a more socially liberal media and political class. In this respect the vote for Brexit was delivered by the ‘left behind’- social groups that are united by a general sense of insecurity, pessimism and marginalisation, who do not feel as though elites, whether in Brussels or Westminster, share their values, represent their interests and genuinely empathise with their intense angst about rapid change.
Interestingly, our results also reveal how turnout in the heartlands of Brexit was often higher than average, indicating that it is citizens who have long felt excluded from the mainstream consensus who used the referendum to voice their distinctive views not only about EU membership but a wider array of perceived threats to their national identity, values and ways of life.
Yet clearly the ‘left behind’ thesis cannot explain the entire Brexit vote. Even if support for EU membership is more polarised along education than support for Ukip ever was, the centre of gravity has shifted. This represents a puzzle. Public support for Euroscepticism has both widened and narrowed – it is now more widespread across the country, but in a number of important respects it is also more socially distinctive. In the shadow of the 2016 referendum stands one basic assertion that few would contest: Britain is now more divided than ever.
Note: the above was originally published on LSE BrexitVote.
Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent, and Associate Fellow at Chatham House. He is also a senior fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe project. His most recent book is the co-authored Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (2014). He tweets as @GoodwinMJ.
Oliver Heath is Reader in Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Political Research: Methods and Practical Skills (with Sandra Halperin).
The ‘Left Behind’ thesis does not seem to fit with developments. Employment growth has been substantial and the current employment rate is comparable with any time in the UK’s history. The improvement in employment has been disproportionately amongst the most disadvantaged and this is one reason why inequality has been improving at the bottom.
In addition, gross earnings; take home pay & income inequality have also seen improvements at the bottom of the distribution. The people who have suffered the most since the recession has been those at the top of the distribution (except perhaps for the top 1%). Information from ASHE on gross wages; the IFS income database on incomes; as well as the progressive nature of tax cuts – raising the tax allowance have also added to the improvement at the bottom of the distribution. If there was a cliché that suited developments it seems to me to be not the ‘Left Behind’ but ‘We are all in this together.’
That still leaves a reason why such improvement amongst people meant that they did not vote to remain and why immigration played such a large part in driving the result. Here I think the BSAS work by Natcen on British Social Attitudes is important
It suggested that far from the economic and cultural effects of immigration being important the view of the UK public in these areas was improving. However, they did find that a big majority of the public considered the numbers of migrants – rather than who they were and what they did – was important. The major concern was that there was pressure being put on public services. Whether the inability to get a doctor’s appointment when you are ill was, in fact, due to large scale immigration was an accurate description for a deterioration in public services or not that was what it looked like from the perspective of the public and they were concerned.
If this assessment is more appropriate than the ‘Left Behind’ thesis then the more important issue on immigration is, I believe, about access to the welfare state and less about control of immigration. In any case, it will be necessary to consider this issue as part of Leaving the EU because the access to all aspects of the welfare state for non-EU citizens (which is roughly no access for 4 years) is less generous to that which is currently given to EU citizens. Equalising and standardising these policies (and perhaps introducing a social insurance system for new-migrants) would fit in with the idea that the primary issue is about pressure on public services. It might also enable some reconciliation to happen between wanting to maintain free trade whilst addressing the legitimate concerns that the BSAS results have about the numbers of migrants.
Recent terrorist acts in Brussels, and the preceding ones in Paris have reminded us of a simple truth.
It’s the need for local decisions that causes an exit. The EU legislate on things that one conttry needs, but the rest don’t.
Landfill is a good example,Holland needed it,no-one else did … bu we all had to have it …
Thanks for the interesting analysis of who voted . We are however in the dark about why these groups voted and left to speculate on the reasons. This is a weakness of a referendum as we are asking people who do not the information to make a rational decision to decide. Consequently we have little real information to enable us to know whether it was the promise of “no immigration” or the “350million a week that swung the balance.
Our system of government should not hang on such uncertain factors,we need a better way forward if the nation is to cope with the enormous challenges coming our way soon.
Personally I voted leave on the basis of an ecological communtarian perspective in that (bio)regions need to be able to manage human and ecological resource flows. I would say this was indicative of brexit communitarian greens on general although I know some liberal greens voted leave due to the undemocratic nature of the eu.
Similarly, in my experience of online discussions, Lanour Leave tended to be social communtarians as opposed to the social liberals of Labour Remain.
Likewise Tory Leave were communitarian in their outlook although more on the basis of social conservatism than the above groups but were also infused with libertarians.
As such in my limited analysis, communitarianism and libertarianism were the main ideological perspectives from which Brexiters sourced their views whereas liberalism (both social and economic) was the main ideological perspective from which Bremainers sourced their views.
Obviously in this analysis, I incorporate populism and provincialism into communitarianism.
The question that arises is how to manage these distinct ideological perspectives. Regional devolution seems the obvious answer so that communities can decide for themselves how to manage human and ecological resource flows.
I also point you to this article which places liberalism as an untenable ideological framework in which to manage environmental sustainability which of course is the primary basis from which to manage social justice issues.
Interesting article. Thanks.