Why did people actually vote for #BREXIT in the UK?

Brexit series for FT.
Brexit series for FT.

To anybody outside the UK, the observation that a majority of those voting went against what is in their best interests and voted for the UK to leave the European Union is quite puzzling. However, once you move beyond the initial emotional shock, you then discover that the generally accepted explanation offered by the media is that it was not simply one of the most dishonest political campaigns ever witnessed, but it was also probably all about deep emotional concerns regarding unfettered immigration.

Those explanations may indeed be popular, but are not truly satisfactory answers. A new study has now identified something else that was a far greater influence.

The Study

In order to explore why the vote went the way it did, Warwick university conducted a comprehensive district-level analysis.

The paper, written by their department of economics,  is available on the website and is entitled …

Who Voted for Brexit? – A Comprehensive District-Level Analysi“.

Sanity Warning: It is long, it runs to 69 pages.

Of passing note, the paper also records that all three authors are based at the University of Warwick and affiliated with the Centre of Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE). CAGE is simply a research centre within the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick and is not some separate entity.

The abstract more or less sums it all. First it sets the scene as follows …

On 23 June 2016, the British electorate voted to leave the European Union. We analyze vote and turnout shares across 380 local authority areas in the United Kingdom.

Then they proceed to lay out a summary of what they discovered …

We find that fundamental characteristics of the voting population were key drivers of the Vote Leave share, in particular their age and education profiles as well as the historical importance of manufacturing employment, low income and high unemployment. Migration was relevant only from Eastern European countries, not from older EU states or non-EU countries. We also find an important role for fiscal cuts being associated with Vote Leave. Our results indicate that modest reductions in fiscal cuts could have swayed the referendum outcome.

To place a degree of considerable emphases upon the popular myths that it was all about the free movement of people right across the EU, and also simply down to people being gullible enough to believe the mythological claims promoted by the leave campaign, they then stress the following two points within the abstract (bold emphases is mine) …

In contrast, even drastic changes in immigration patterns would probably not have made a difference. We confirm the above findings at the much finer level of wards within cities. Our results cast doubt on the notion that short-term campaigning events had a meaningful influence on the vote.

Wow, so that is indeed interesting and also perhaps a surprise to some. What is rather reassuring about it all is this …

  • The 52% that voted leave are not gullible idiots who voted that way because they are at heart xenophobic racists, something distinctly different explains what was actually motivating them.

Is this the truly causal explanation?

We do perhaps need to appreciate that the study was measuring a correlation between five fundamental socio-economic features and the actual vote results. These were the five features they analysed …

  1. political variables
  2. measures of an area’s exposure to the European Union
  3. measures capturing (the quality of) public services provision and exposure to fiscal consolidation (austerity)
  4. demographic and human capital characteristics
  5. measures capturing the underlying economic structure of an area

They are not claiming a specific causal relationship, but do perhaps lay the groundwork for a future systematic analysis that just might identify specific mechanisms. Quite obviously we should also not forget that the vote results are multi-causal and multi-faceted.

So what were the researches at Warwick actually trying to do here, do they have a specific political agenda?

What motivates their interest as members of a department of economics at a UK university is to determine if they can create a model that has  predictive power by pulling together various dimensions of the vote pattern.

So did they achieve that?

To some degree, yes they did …

Our results indicate that even very simple empirical models can explain significant amounts of variation in the Vote Leave share and achieve good prediction performance. In particular, we highlight that the simplest model containing only six explanatory variables capturing electoral preferences as measured by the 2014 European Parliamentary elections explain almost 92 percent of the variation in the support for Leave across local authority areas. This suggests that understanding the evolution of political preferences over time in the UK can provide a unique window into understanding the causal mechanisms that ultimately caused a referendum to be held in the first place

Dig into it all and you discover that it is all very revealing stuff.

Popular Myth: It was all about Immigration and Trade with the EU.

Apparently not …

contrary to much of the political debate in the run-up to the election, we find that relatively little variation in the Vote Leave share can be explained by measures of a local authority area’s exposure to the European Union (e.g., due to immigration and trade exposure)

Instead they found that things such as educational attainment, industry structure and demography consistently predicted right across all the various voting wards the vote.

This should be a shock to many, because none of this was being debated in the run-up to the election, and none of it can be changed very easily by politicians making choices.

So what could have changed the vote outcome?

Not imposing stringent austerity upon the poorest in society would potentially have made a difference …

The analysis suggests that just a slightly less harsh regime of austerity aimed at cutting benefits could have substantially reduced support for the Vote Leave campaign and overturned the result of the EU referendum.

Handling immigration differently (that really was an option and was not a one size fits all EU directive) would not …

A reduction in migration from Eastern Europe, which could have been achieved by opting to phase in freedom of movement in 2004 (which much of the rest of Europe did), could have also reduced the margin of victory for the Leave campaign, but would have been unlikely to overturn the referendum result.

Was there anybody out there who realised any of this?

The Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was very switched on and knew exactly what was going on. In a speech to the Institute of Directors she correctly said …

“There are many, many causes of the vote to leave the EU. For many people, they will have included entirely reasonable doubts and reservations about the EU. It is, after all, an imperfect organisation.”

… then went on to point out exactly what this paper is now also telling us …

Brexit was a product of a sense of disenfranchisement and disillusionment. It was borne of inequality, of feelings of powerlessness – of austerity budgets which hurt the public services and social safety nets that so many people depend on

Others have also been clearly articulating this very same point. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) engaged the University of Kent  to look into what the vote was really all about and they reached the exact same conclusion. The key findings from there were as follows …

  • The poorest households, with incomes of less than £20,000 per year, were much more likely to support leaving the EU than the wealthiest households, as were the unemployed, people in low-skilled and manual occupations, people who feel that their financial situation has worsened, and those with no qualifications.
  • Groups vulnerable to poverty were more likely to support Brexit. Age, income and education matter, though it is educational inequality that was the strongest driver. Other things being equal, support for leave was 30 percentage points higher among those with GCSE qualifications or below than it was for people with a degree. In contrast, support for leave was just 10 points higher among those on less than £20,000 per year than it was among those with incomes of more than £60,000 per year, and 20 points higher among those aged 65 than those aged 25.
  • Support for Brexit varied not only between individuals but also between areas. People with all levels of qualifications were more likely to vote leave in low-skill areas compared with high-skill areas. However, this effect was stronger for the more highly qualified. In low-skilled communities the difference in support for leave between graduates and those with GCSEs was 20 points. In high-skilled communities it was over 40 points.  In low-skill areas the proportion of A-level holders voting leave was closer to that of people with low-skills. In high-skill areas their vote was much more similar to graduates.
  • Groups in Britain who have been ‘left behind’ by rapid economic change and feel cut adrift from the mainstream consensus were the most likely to support Brexit. These voters face a ‘double whammy’. While their lack of qualifications put them at a significant disadvantage in the modern economy, they are also being further marginalised in society by the lack of opportunities that faced in their low-skilled communities. This will make it extremely difficult for the left behind to adapt and prosper in future.

Bottom Line

We had a Conservative Government that manages to disenchant a majority of the UKs population by leaving vast swathes of them behind via the imposition of a rather severe austerity budget that was very much slanted towards impoverishing the poorest in our society even further.

They then proceeded to hold a referendum vote that was conducted with a degree of confidence that people would simply not vote against their own best interests, and was done to address a civil war within their own ranks. However, they were so oblivious to the impact of the austerity measures they had imposed that they neglected to consider the possibility that many would grasp it as an opportunity for a protest vote.

Have they learned anything yet?

Probably not, we now appear to have Mrs May playing the role of Charles I in the sense that she appears to be wholly committed to bypassing parliament. If she persists in that stance then parliament will metaphorically chop off her head via a vote of no confidence. However, it is far more probable that the decision from a recent court case will result in the final conclusion that parliament must grant approval for the triggering of article 50.

I’m currently confident that the UK is not leaving the EU, because in the long run common sense will eventually prevail. Sadly I just might be wrong.

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