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Think you know why people actually voted for Brexit? Think again

The dominant narrative suggests it was a 'howl of pain' about immigration, stagnant wages and an out-of-control housing market – but figures suggest that's not really true

Ben Chu
Monday 18 July 2016 09:25 BST
Remain supporters marching to Parliament Square earlier this month
Remain supporters marching to Parliament Square earlier this month (PA)

Why? Three weeks on from the European Union referendum and the question still squats over everything, demanding an answer: why did so many people vote to leave the European Union on 23 June?

One of the most significant aspects of Theresa May’s speech outside Downing Street last week upon being installed as Britain’s new Prime Minister was a handbrake turn in Conservative rhetoric.

Out went the optimistic Cameron-style talk of an economy that was steadily recovering and delivering broad-based prosperity. And in came a pledge of economic and social reform; revolution, even.

“If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise,” said May. “We will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.”

The startling similarity of the message to Ed Miliband’s 2015 Labour election manifesto has been widely noted.

So what changed? Well, Brexit obviously.

Theresa May Gives Maiden Speech Outside Downing Street as new PM

May and those around her apparently believe the vote to Leave was not really a reflection of optimism about Britain’s future outside the European Union, but a howl of pain and frustration from “left behind” parts of the country.

This is certainly the most popular narrative among researchers, intellectuals and pundits in the wake of the 23rd June political earthquake: the idea that years, even decades, of pent-up anger over inequality of income, opportunity and power were what drove the massive Leave vote.

But if this was indeed an economic vote of protest, what precisely was the economic grievance?

Wages, say some. Statistical work by the labour economists Brian Bell and Stephen Machin suggests that areas where average wage growth have been weak for the past two decades were more likely to vote Leave.

Jobs, say others. Separate research by the Resolution Foundation has found a strong correlation between relatively low employment levels in an area and a tendency for that area to Leave.

But de-industrialisation is the real answer, others insist. Two Italian economists, Italo Colantone and Piero Stanig, say that the UK areas that swung to Leave were also areas that had experienced the biggest “import shock” over the past quarter century, with local manufacturing workers thrust into brutal competition with Chinese firms.

Other explanations fly around too, more related to social cohesion than living standards. Many claim that the referendum was essentially won on the issue of opposition to immigration. It’s noted that areas with the biggest change in the number of foreign-born residents in the preceding 15 years were some of the ones with the highest Leave votes.

Yet there are problems with all of these narratives. If stagnant wages were the key driver, why did these disgruntled places not vote in larger numbers for Ed Miliband’s economic reform programme in the 2015 general election? Similarly, if there is such anger at Tory welfare cuts, why is Jeremy Corbyn’s unambiguously anti-austerity Labour Party so weak in the polls today?

Similarly, de-industrialisation is hardly a new phenomenon. Why would a mass protest vote only materialise now? Scotland has seen its share of heavy industry disappear since the 1980s. Yet it was strongly pro-Remain. Wales, as a region, voted to leave, having struggled economically for many years. Yet Northern Ireland, which has had easily the worst economic performance of any region of the UK over the same period, voted overwhelmingly to Remain.

If the issue is a post-crash squeeze on incomes, why did young people, who have suffered disproportionately since the 2008 financial crash, apparently vote heavily in favour of continued EU membership while a majority of the over-50s, whose incomes have held up relatively well, vote against?

The immigration story is complicated too. Areas with the highest levels of foreign-born population – including London - were also the ones with highest Remain votes. Clacton, the seaside constituency with that has returned the country’s only UKIP MP, has a very low share of foreign-born residents.

The inequality explanation is tricky to sustain too, given the nationwide distribution of income across the population has not actually shifted much in recent years. If it’s about wealth, why did (as the Resolution Foundation has also found) areas with high levels of home ownership incline towards Leave?

Seeking a single over-arching “cause” of the Brexit vote is, in truth, a wild goose chase. There’s no “real reason” why people voted in the way they did. All these factors probably played some part to some extent and these analysts and politicians might be like the proverbial blind men describing different bits of the elephant.

Binary referendum questions can accommodate all manner of grievances, hopes and motivations in either box. And, on top of that, there’s the filter of local politics and institutional allegiances.

It’s also possible that a great many people simply did not understand the full implications of their vote. One of the strongest correlations with a leave bias identified by the Resolution Foundation was actually relatively low levels of graduates in an area. Large parts of the tabloid media did little to inform their readers.

There’s a danger of politicians and pundits latching on to the explanation for the Brexit vote that fits their existing pre-occupations, or existing preferred policy solutions.

Last week, before he was fired as Chancellor, George Osborne was talking about how the vote underlined the importance of his cherished “Northern Powerhouse” agenda.

Boris Johnson, before he dropped out of the Tory leadership race, was trying to talk down the importance of immigration as a motivator of Leave voters, apparently eyeing an EU trade deal that would allow the continuation of free movement.

May’s new stated economic approach sounds appealing to me personally, but it’s possible she’s making the same mistake of projecting on to the referendum result the message she was already inclined to read.

Yes, the people have spoken. But it’s a fallacy to assume that they spoke with a single voice.

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