CIPR Education & Skills group committee member Anne Nicholls looks at the evidence from academics on why the Leave vote won
Take a walk around Ebbw Wale in the south Wales valleys and you will see evidence of how EU money has benefitted the town. There is an impressive-looking college built of glass and steel, a new dual carriage road and railway station, money from the European Social Fund for apprenticeship training and more cash in the pipeline. Well … maybe under the circumstances. In case locals claim that they were unware of this, there are bold signs all over town saying ‘EU funds: investing in Wales’ and website text saying that as an EU tier 1 area, “companies can benefit from the highest level of grant aid in the UK”.
There is very little immigration in the area. So why did 62 per cent of the people of Ebbw Vale vote Leave?
Politicians, journalists and academics have been searching for answers since the referendum and are not short of ideas. Although immigration was cited as a significant factor persuading people to vote Leave, areas with some of the highest numbers of immigrants, like London, voted overwhelming to Remain. It was clear that the majority of younger people (under 30s) voted Remain and many older people (over 50s) voted Leave, which was fairly predictable.
Well-educated professionals tended to vote Remain with the poorer, less educated voting Leave. Again, little surprise there. But across the UK the division of Remain-Leave voters was not quite so clear cut. Look at what happened in Scotland and Northern Ireland who both voted overwhelming to Remain.
A year ago – or even a few months ago – it seemed like the Remain side would romp home. So why did the pendulum swing the other way in the last weeks of the campaign? The Leave campaign had no robust plans for post-Brexit and were exposed for telling lies – essentially misleading people into thinking that the £350m a week contributions to the EU would pile into the NHS coffers if we left. In contrast the Remain campaign had a barrage of economic experts predicting economic disaster.
Despite hours of television debates, it would seem that in the end people were so swamped by statistics and scare stories that they just ignored the experts and voted on a hunch. In an interview with Sky, Michael Gove declared: “I think people in this country have had enough of experts”. Clearly they have. Over two thirds of Leave supporters, compared to just a quarter of Remainers, say it is wrong to rely too much on experts. Just a week before the referendum a Telegraph article summed up the situation aptly by saying: “It appears that the vicious cocktail of false claims, widespread misuse of statistics and the Leave campaign’s attack on ‘establishment’ experts has led the British public to shut off warnings of economists and academics.”
This sentiment is illustrated in the Ebbw Vale Observer story where a 21-year-old Leave voter who had just finished a football training session on a brand new EU-funded pitch was asked if he knew that EU money had funded lots of projects in his area. The young man said: “Well, I know … they built all this. But we put in more money than we get out, don’t we?”. A 60-year-old owner of a fish and chip shop who voted Remain said that her customers were obsessed with the threat of immigration. “They didn’t look at the facts at all.” she said. “Are there any immigrants in Ebbw Vale? No! Hardly any. And the ones there are all working, all contributing. “
So what light can academics throw on why the referendum went the way it did?
Matthew Goodwin, Professor of Politics at the University of Kent, spotted a shift towards Leave in February 2016, when the polls predicted a 53% vote for Remain and 47% for Leave. He picked up discontent about threats to English (more than British) identity and strong anti-Brussels feelings from people who felt important decisions were being made by faceless bureaucrats across the channel. He sensed a deep-rooted malaise was bubbling over.
Post 23 June, Goodwin says: “The reality is that they [Leave voters] were pushed on by something that is far more powerful than any political campaign – currents that have been deeply embedded into the fabric of British society for decades, that are visible only among specific groups of voters and which, in the early hours of June 24, were given full expression in the results that flickered on our television screens […]. Britain’s vote for Brexit is anchored in deep divides that have been visible and growing for decades. The Remain campaign’s miscalculation was that it failed to grasp them. The Leave campaign’s strength was that it deployed a message that spoke convincingly and clearly to them.”
Take the town of Boston, Lincolnshire, where over three-quarters of the local eletorate voted Leave. The town has experienced substantial immigration from Central and Eastern Europe. Add to this deprivation with an average annual income of less than £17,000 and you can start to understand why people voted Leave in such numbers. The prosperity enjoyed by many people living in the south-east has clearly passed them by. In contrast, the average annual income of people living in the multi-cultural London Borough of Lambeth, which returned the highest Remain vote, is around £27,000 a year.
Goodwin claims that the Remain camp lost because they failed to point out the positives of being in the EU and, instead, spread scare stories about what would happen if we left. Fear tactics may have worked in the Scottish independence referendum, but clearly did not with the EU referendum.
Other research shows a similar picture. Labour market economists Brian Bell and Stephen Machin (in an article in The Independent) suggest a connection between Leave voters and areas of the country where wage growth has been weakest since 1997. The implication is that much of the Leave vote was not about dissatisfaction with the EU, which was used as a scapegoat for their discontent. Another explanation – supported by Tory Peer Lord Ashcroft – is that many people have become uncomfortable with the social changes in Britain over the past few decades and think that a vote to Leave will fix the problems.
Failure by the Remain side to address the subject of immigration was a clearly a major weakness, says Tony Travis in the London School of Economics blog. Other factors the loss of sovereignty (although few people could articulate exactly what that meant) and threats to traditional industries through globalisation. This surfaced in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, Mansfield, Blackpool, Barking & Dagenham and Redcar which returned a high proportion of Leave votes. Travis says that the loss of traditional manufacturing, mining, docking and seaside jobs in some of these areas has left many areas with weak private sectors and a mismatch between skills available and skills needed for the modern economy.
Summarising the insights from various academics and experts, these are the key reasons why the Leave campaign won and the Remain campaign failed.
- The Leave campaign had the most emotive and engaging messages. The slogan ‘Take back control’ touched a nerve, painting a rose-tinted picture of a Britain free from the shackles of Brussels and the threat of yet more immigration. The Remain campaign’s ‘safer, stronger and better off’ argument might have won minds but did not win hearts.
- People just switched off when presented with a barrage of facts – from academics and economists, to the IMT and business tycoons. They just believed what they wanted to, basically cherry picking those facts that reinforced their own beliefs.
- The Remain campaign was too negative and failed to show the benefits that the EU had brought to the country in ways that meant something to ordinary people. The Ebbw Vale example can be replaced across the country in those areas of the industrial heartlands and the northern powerhouse which had benefited from EU money. But maybe they would not have listened.
- Immigration was clearly a major factor and the Remain campaign had no answers to concerns – a major flaw. The notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster may have been ill-judged, yet it seems to have worked. But it was the fear of immigration in some areas that was particularly significant. There is also anecdotal evidence that people did not distinguish between immigrants from the EU and the rest of the world. A British-born Asian woman on a BBC TV debate broadcast a month after the referendum said someone had shouted at her in the street saying: “You lot can go home now.”
- Personalities played a role in decision making. Polls found huge discrepancies in trust for certain politicians and celebrities, with Boris Johnson having more clout and credibility than others. Only Money Saving expert Martin Lewis was trusted equally by both sides … and he told people to vote according to their gut feeling.
- And finally, there is evidence that the vote for Leave was largely a protest against austerity, addressed to a government that was out of touch with a large tranche of the population. There is evidence that many people didn’t really understand what the EU was all about and that it was simply a scapegoat for their discontent.
So these are some of the causes of the disaffection which led the UK electorate to reject the European Union. This division in the country between the ‘haves’ and the have nots’ is something that Theresa May acknowledged in her speech outside number 10 Downing Street. The key challenge for the ‘Brexit government’ is how many of these problems will be solved by leaving the EU. Will leaving rebuild the economies of communities that have been disrupted by globalisation? Will immigration be reduced? Will leaving create more wealth to spend on the NHS and other public services? Will it allow people to feel they have a genuine say in the way decisions are made so they can ‘get their country back’?
It would be a cruel irony if the areas that voted overwhelmingly to Leave found that withdrawal of EU money plunged them even deeper into recession. And if the £350m savings when we exit the EU were dwarfed by the loss in GDP as the economy contracts.