Why the Brexit vote was not just about where voters lived

There isn’t a simple national or regional pattern of response to staying in or leaving the EU.
- Professor Ian Gordon
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Vote Leave sign Geograph (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The dynamic behind the 2016 referendum where Britain decide to leave the EU is often explained by economics. Poorer, blue collar, low-skilled voters tended to vote leave; affluent, well-educated members of society backed remain. The result was a slim majority for leave, as the “left behind” enacted their revenge against the prosperous members of society.

New research from Professor Ian Gordon of the Department of Geography argues that this description over-simplifies the often complicated profile behind the vote: “People look at maps and read what they want from them.

"When they see a majority of leave voters in old industrial regions, and economically booming London as majority remain, they jump to familiar conclusions, about both the reasons for the result and the lessons to be learned from it,” he adds.

Professor Gordon describes this approach as reductionist, ignoring the complex background to voting behaviour and the ways that geographic location affects this. From analysis of support for populist movements across Europe he finds that it’s not just a matter of regional success or personal status, but that powerful individual attitudes shape how people respond to social and cultural change in the areas where they live.  

“In the UK, there isn’t a simple national or regional pattern of response to staying in or leaving the EU, but local communities with different histories and mixes of people reacting differently,” says Professor Gordon.

“Value-led voting behaviour, based on cultural attitudes and organisational affiliations, offers a more persuasive line of explanation than simple economics,” he adds.  

This corroborates earlier polling research on UKIP voters, a party whose overriding objective is for Britain to leave the EU. Despite this, studies had shown its supporters were drawn to the party not because of hostility to the EU, rather a broader concern over how the country was changing, and the indifference of elites to their views.  

According to Professor Gordon, such supporters of a populist cause are likely to have identities involving a strong investment in a local or workplace community, making them more easily unsettled when mass immigration and social change occurs where they live.

The opposite is true of a typical Remain voter. He says: “Their lifestyle and career trajectories reflect a stronger investment in adaptability. They are more comfortable with mobility, with change in their communities, and with their own ability to cope”.

These types of people are more likely to be found in some kinds of occupation than others, but they are each spread across the social spectrum.  “Analysing referendum voting patterns in relation to occupations did not simply reveal a working class bloc pitted against the better-off members of society,” Professor Gordon says.

“Places with concentrations of several socially disparate groups, including corporate managers, secretaries, drivers, engineering workers, were all more likely to have large leave votes. They were clearly united by something other than income or status levels.”

Professor Gordon also found examples of whole city-regions that were anomalies, such as Merseyside, one of the least prosperous cities in Britain but still showing a strong remain vote.  He says: “The people who vote leave were clearly not always the victims of change, while those who voted to remain were not always the winners.”

Professor Gordon’s research remains relevant almost two years after the vote as opinion polls show support for leaving or remaining in the EU is approximately the same as it was when the EU referendum was held, despite new information about economic impacts and a difficult start to the negotiation process.

As Britain’s current and future governments try to build a relationship with the EU which keeps both leavers and remainers satisfied, understanding the reasons for these voters’ choices will remain vital to resolving their concerns.   

But, Professor Gordon says: “Voting leave was an expression of a wide range of different concerns, rather than a single one. As such it is extremely difficult to develop a coherent policy package that would appease this group, whatever the UK’s relationship with Europe is. 

“Even more difficult is the fact that the most widely shared concern among leavers -  ‘to regain control’ - is at odds with the kind of complex, globalised world within which we will still have to operate. Or else face a degree of economic decline that will make all the non-material concerns much less bearable.”

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