Brexit referendum result: Austerity and welfare cuts main driver behind leave vote, finds report

'If it hadn’t been for austerity, more of those marginal voters would have voted the other way and the referendum wouldn’t have turned out the way it did'

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 03 February 2019 13:01 GMT
Brexit: What will happen in 2019?

Welfare cuts and other austerity measures implemented under the Conservatives pushed vital swing voters to back Brexit and won the EU referendum for the Leave campaign, according to a new report.

Research published by the Social Market Foundation suggests the best indicator of a person’s referendum vote was not age or education, but happiness or sadness about their personal finances – with unhappy people tending to vote Leave and contented ones preferring Remain.

The report, which analysed the level of cuts in each area of the UK alongside each area’s growth in support for Ukip, argues that had it not been for austerity, the referendum would not have turned out the way it did.

It found that in districts that received the average austerity shock, Ukip vote shares were on average 11.62 percentage points higher in the most recent local elections prior to the referendum than in districts with little exposure to austerity.

As well as area-level analysis, the report looked at individual-level data and found that some people directly affected by welfare cuts shifted their political support to Ukip and rejected the political establishment.

“Households exposed to the bedroom tax increasingly shifted to support Ukip and experienced economic grievances as they fell behind with their rent payments due to the cuts,” the paper stated.

As much as 9 percentage points of the 52 per cent support for Leave – around 3 million votes – was decided by concern about austerity and related issues, the researchers estimated.

It suggests that without the effect of the “austerity shock” on welfare and public services, the Leave share of the referendum vote could have been as low as 43 per cent, delivering a comfortable win for Remain.

Dr Thiemo Fetzer, report author and associate professor of economics at the University of Warwick, said: “The swing voters who decided the referendum result were not diehard Eurosceptics. They were concerned about public goods and public services and feeling the impact of austerity policies.

“If it hadn’t been for austerity, more of those marginal voters would have voted the other way and the referendum wouldn’t have turned out the way it did.”

Dr Fetzer added that the way politicians were handling the Brexit process showed they were “still ignoring” the concerns of the swing voters who decided the outcome of the referendum.

“The swing voters who backed Leave don’t want a no-deal Brexit but don’t want no Brexit either. They probably want some sort of deal that means Britain leaves the UK without more disruption to public services and resources,” he said.

“But right now, the political system is set up to focus on the extremes on either side, not on the marginal voters in the middle who actually made the difference between Leave and Remain.

“Marginal voters and the reasons they voted Leave are being dangerously ignored.”

The report also challenged the idea that age was the dominant factor in referendum voting behaviour, with analysis showing that only the 18- to 24-year-old demographic showed a strong majority for Remain.

“Brexit was not delivered only by old people; leaving was the majority choice for most age groups and only the very young were substantially pro-Remain,” the report stated.

The government has been approached for comment.

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