Looking behind the Brexit anger

Was the referendum result the revenge of the ‘left-behind’ voters? Not the most recently left-behind, says the Resolution Foundation’s Torsten Bell. Those areas that have experienced the sharpest fall in income since EU enlargement might have been expected to vote most strongly for Brexit but, as Torsten shows, “there is no relationship between how an area’s prosperity changed in recent years and how they voted.”

There is, though, a clear relationship between those areas with low earnings and high proportions of votes for Brexit.


You get a similar picture if you look at the 2002 earnings figures, says Torsten, which suggests you have to look back further to understand what is going on. As Will Davies of Goldsmiths puts it, the geography reflects the crisis of the 1970s and 80s not the 2010s:

It is easy to focus on the recent history of Tory-led austerity when analysing this, as if anger towards elites and immigrants was simply an effect of public spending cuts of the past 6 years or (more structurally) the collapse of Britain’s pre-2007 debt-driven model of growth.

But consider the longer history of these regions as well. Thatcherism gutted them with pit-closures and monetarism, but generated no private sector jobs to fill the space. The entrepreneurial investment that neoliberals always believe is just around the corner never materialised.

To put it another way, then, the left-behind who voted for Brexit last week were left behind a long time ago.

Eric Kaufmann has a slightly different take on this. He rejects the left behind story in favour of a cultural explanation:

The Leave campaign’s stunning upset has barely sunk in and already the pundits are flogging a familiar storyline. Those ‘left behind’ in the hard-luck provinces have punched privileged, corporate London in the nose.

The facts tell a different story: culture and personality, not material circumstances, separate Leave and Remain voters. This is not a class conflict so much as a values divide that cuts across lines of age, income, education and even party.

Values, such as whether children should obey their parents or whether we should bring back the death penalty, are better indicators of a Leave or Remain vote than income, he says:

The graph below, restricted to White British respondents, shows almost no statistically significant difference in EU vote intention between rich and poor. By contrast, the probability of voting Brexit rises from around 20 per cent for those most opposed to the death penalty to 70 per cent for those most in favour. Wealthy people who back capital punishment back Brexit. Poor folk who oppose the death penalty support Remain.


A quick glance at the post-referendum voting stats tells you that there is something going on here that is not just economic. There were majorities for Leave in some of the posher parts of southern England. Polling by Lord Ashcroft found that the majority of outright owners and those in social housing voted Leave while a majority of private renters and those with mortgages voted Remain. This suggests, as Torsten says, a coalition of the older traditional county Tories and the working class in the former industrial towns.

[T]his isn’t just about the numbers – it’s about culture, outlook, lifestyle and what we feel a sense of belonging to. That might not be the normal thing for an economic research organisation to say, but it’s true. And it’s also, as many people noted last night, a function of the coalition that underpinned the leave vote – shire Tories combined with Britain’s industrial heartlands. In a sense, though, this is simply a different sort of left-behindness. Left behind by the shift in the cultural zeitgeist as well as the economic changes.

Or, as Max Wind-Cowie observed, three years ago:

Bringing together the dissatisfied of Tunbridge Wells and the downtrodden of Merseyside is a remarkable feat, and it stems from UKIP’s empathy for those who have been left behind by the relentless march of globalisation and glib liberalism.

One of the most succinct explanations for the political changes of the last four decades came from American political scientist Professor Alan Wolfe:

The right won the economic war, the left won the cultural war.

This is the equality paradox I wrote about some years ago. Since the 1970s, the institutional barriers and prejudice against women, gay people and ethnic minorities have been broken down both by legislation and changing attitudes. The graduate intakes at the big firms in 2015 look very different from those of 1980, which were almost exclusively white and male. In most social situations it is no longer acceptable to use racist language and it is illegal to do so in the workplace. In 1985, a manager in a well-known company could tell another to “get his typing done by the wog” and not only win the resulting court case but avoid a public outcry too. That would be unthinkable today. The phenomenon sometimes derided as political correctness which, for the most part, is simply social justice and good manners, won the day during the 1980s and 1990s even though the UK was under Conservative rule. The Tories fought the economic war but, for the most part, were prepared to concede on the cultural side. They even abolished corporal punishment in schools.

While all this was happening, economic inequality rose sharply and the share of GDP going to waged employees declined from its 1970s peak. This means that a manual worker in 2015, though he is protected from discrimination and abusive language at work, is getting a smaller slice of the economic pie than his counterpart in 1980.

The two great political parties which had dominated British politics since the First World War by and large went with the flow. The Labour Party accepted privatisation and deregulation while the Conservative Party toned down its opposition to immigration and gay rights. Not everybody was happy with this.

On the Tory side, free market economics often leads to a lot of things that socially conservative voters don’t like. De-industrialisation breaks down communities. De-regulation removes rural bus services. Free trade and foreign competition closes the local factory. Public spending cuts reduce the number of police officers and diminish the armed forces. Even among Conservative voters there is still a majority in favour of re-nationalising the energy companies and railways. They might have moaned about them at the time but at least you knew where you were with British Rail and the local gas board. The Telegraph’s Ed West spoke for many conservatives when, commenting on the Beecroft proposals, he said:

What is it with the Conservatives? They seem to be Right-wing only where no one wants them to be Right-wing. Theirs is a conservatism that cares nothing about British sovereignty, marriage, natural justice, defending the borders, law and order or the armed forces, but that cares deeply about reducing the rights of British workers. Contrary to the idea banded about in the less thoughtful areas of political discourse, conservatism is not about protecting the rich: it is about creating an environment that is safe, sober, crime-free, respectful, educated, gentle and high in social capital and trust. In other words, about protecting the poor and weak. Until the Conservative Party realises this, they will continue to haemorrhage support.

A decade ago, an article appeared in the now defunct Powellite journal Right Now! asking, “Is capitalism conservative any more?” It was written from a very right-wing perspective and it concluded that big business is no longer on ‘our side’. At the time it seemed eccentric but the anti-business conservative rhetoric has become more mainstream in the dozen or so years since it was written. The alliance between patriotic traditional conservatism and economic liberalism, that has defined the modern Conservative Party, is breaking apart.

There is a similar dilemma on the Labour side. To celebrate its centenary, the New Statesman asked Did the left win the 20th century? Despite the reversals of the last third of that century and the clear direction of travel since, such as declining trade unionism, rising inequality, stagnating wages and increasing insecurity, the NS audience decided that the left had won the 20th century. From the perspective of the young London lefties gathered at King’s College, it did look as though the left had won. I wonder if they would have had the same result if they had held the debate in Hartlepool though.

Outside London, there are a number of Labour supporters wondering why their party was in power for thirteen years, yet their neighbourhoods are decaying, their incomes are falling and their employment is increasingly precarious.

The restrictive practices that once protected working class jobs were blown away by both globalisation and liberal legislation. If they were still in business, the firms that used to recruit from families could no longer do so, even if they wanted to. A middle-aged man whose dad got him a start at the works couldn’t do that for his own son. The council houses that used to be allocated on the basis of having lived in a community for years are now owned by housing associations. The trade unions that used to give workers some say in the way things were run have gone. Practices that look unfair and inefficient from today’s perspective reinforced a social structure. They gave people a sense of control and bound them to an established order.

But, in the Labour Party, it was the socially liberal left that triumphed and the socialist left that lost. Just as Ed West remarked that the Tories were right-wing about the wrong things, many Labour voters felt their party was left-wing about the wrong things. Working class voters are too often demonised as bigots but it is not homophobic or sexist to wonder why your party  is campaigning for gay marriage and more women on boards while your home town is going down the pan. Labour’s Equality Act said very little about economic equality at all. As Peter Mandelson might have said, the Labour government didn’t mind people getting filthy rich provided they had the right equality and diversity policies in place.

David Goodhart called this the triumph of the two liberalisms, the social liberalism of the left and the economic liberalism of the right. Its most obvious physical manifestation is immigration. Throw open the borders, stop employers and housing providers discriminating in favour of locals and the place fills up with foreigners. And who benefits from the cheap labour? Big business of course. An unholy alliance between the metropolitan leftie liberals and the money grabbing free-market Tories enriches the elite and stuffs the traditional working class. Yes, I know it’s more complicated than that but try explaining it on the doorstep on a council estate in the pouring rain.

If the right won the economic war and the left won the cultural war, there are a lot of people in Britain who wish that it had been the other way around or, at least, that the victory had not been so complete. Some of them are well-off and angry, others are poor and angry but we heard from them very loudly last week. As Ben Chu says, all political parties need a better understanding of the deeper reasons behind the Brexit vote. It’s a often said that Labour voters feel abandoned by their party but a lot of Tory voters do too.

The trouble is, the EU’s role in all this has been fairly peripheral. If anything, it might have mitigated some of the worst effects of economic liberalism. As Eric Kaufmann says, something similar is happening in a lot of western economies. The same frustrations are behind the support for Donald Trump in the USA. Leaving the EU, therefore, is unlikely to make much difference. And that is likely to make people even angrier.


Lord Ashcroft’s research also noted attitude clusters aligning with Remain and Leave voters:



Alasdair Rae has plotted the strength of the Brexit vote in England against the deprivation index and found only a weak correlation. (For the stats geeks among you, R-squared is 0.0369.)


Some  of the more deprived areas voted Remain and quite a few posh ones voted Leave. Clearly economics is only part of the story. There’s a lot more going on here.


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52 Responses to Looking behind the Brexit anger

  1. sdbast says:

    Reblogged this on sdbast.

  2. Dan says:

    Excellent stuff. One thing confuses me about the fabians graph. Why limit it to white voters only? Do we know what it would look like otherwise.

    • Aslangeo says:

      Some ethnic minority groups tend to be more in favour of harsher punishments (which are currently used in their parental countries of origin.For instance many countries in Caribbean, Africa, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh have the death penalty) but BAME voters such as me were more in favour of remain then white Britons of otherwise similar characteristics. This would distort the graph that the Fabian person was trying to make

  3. Pete says:

    “There were majorities for remain in some of the posher parts of southern England” – should read leave I think? P.S. Thanks for the great blogs!

    • Rick says:

      Damn! Thanks for that. Now corrected.

      • tim cole says:

        Hi Rick,
        Fantastic article!
        I follow economics and politics and like (ha!) to see myself as well informed. I’m at a bit of a loss to understand this paragraph though:
        ” Its most obvious physical manifestation is immigration. Throw open the borders, stop employers and housing providers discriminating in favour of locals and the place fills up with foreigners. And who benefits from the cheap labour? Big business of course. An unholy alliance between the metropolitan leftie liberals and the money grabbing free-market Tories enriches the elite and stuffs the traditional working class. Yes, I know it’s more complicated than that but try explaining it on the doorstep on a council estate in the pouring rain.”

        As I said, I understand economics (fractional reserve system, Bastiat’s broken window etcetc) and I am at a loss to know what is wrong with what you have said here: yes I know it is more complicated than that.”

        I have a simple question: why is it more complicated than that? Unless of course you mean the competing studies that show immigration is good/bad for Britain. Which of course all depend on what parameters are used, and whether they attempt to come up in simple £s and pence whether large numbers of low paid workers can actually put in more than they take out. After all, if 50,000 people arrive, and need 500 school places, see a doctor 500 times a year, have 50 operations a year etc, how do we ever work out the true cost?

  4. Chris Webb says:

    Very good analysis !

  5. zooniecait says:

    Bravo. Excellent analysis.

    What’s interesting to me, which you don’t mention given that it’s not necessarily relevant in *this* context is whether there is some correlation between eg: death penalty /Brexit types and those who are uncomfortable with ‘political correctness’ and feminism, say. I’m struck by the similarities is vitriolic monologue between ‘meninists’ and the new empowered Right. Feels like part of the same tide. (Most particularly bearing Trump supporters in mind, I guess, but there are many UK based ‘meninist’ types too).

  6. oblomovIII says:

    Very good. In terms of conservatism, I do like to read The American Conservative which generally takes issue with conservatism = big business & socially illiberal viewpoint which dominates US politics.

  7. gunnerbear says:

    The EU vote was a great….it got us out the EU so we can set out our own laws and also smashed the Blues and Reds in the teeth and brought out into the limelight all those like that c**t Lammy and that utter f**kwit Clarke who have said they will do everything they can to stop BREXIT i.e we can now really begin to see how much the ‘elected elites and their chums’ really, really f**kin’ hate those of us that had the temerity to vote OUT.

    • Me says:

      Leaving’s made you happy then.

    • Bill Chapman says:

      The referendum “got us out of the EU”. No, it didn’t. The referendum was an advisory straw-poll – a snapshot of public opinion. Great Britain is firmly a member of the EU, and our MEPs will continue to represent us in the European Parliament until 2019 and, after elections, beyondf that. There is no plan to leave the EU and no plan to make a plan to leave. I don’t see it as likely that the UNited Kingdom will leave the European Union. There may possibly be some tinkering with the rules, but nothing more.

    • That comment makes no sense. Apart from the un-needed bad language which just irritates, we’re not out of the EU. If we DO, and its a big if at the moment, it won’t happen for a long time. And smashing the blues and reds in the teeth? So you’re neither a free marketeer or a social ownership fan? I’m hoping that means you favour a mixed economy but I rather suspect it means you’re just a shouter. Which makes no sense…..

  8. Staberinde says:

    Great post, very thoughtful. However, I draw a different conclusion from your evidence on renters and mortgagees vs. outright owners and council tenants: Leavers had nothing to lose from change, Remainers had much to lose from change. Whether financially independent or working on a zero hours contract, you feel able to take a punt. That’s where the real anger of Remainers derives from: that those who carried the result have less skin in the game. We see this in the narrative of old vs. young, where (unlike a general election result which nobody has to live with for more than 5 years) a young person could live with Brexit for 70-odd years while a pensioner might only have to do so for a decade or so. Skin in the game is surely part of the analysis here, in my view.

    • Person_XYZ says:

      “Leavers had nothing to lose from change, Remainers had much to lose from change.”

      That is the narrative, but it’s wrong. I suppose for somebody in real poverty, Leave might be a worthwhile risk, or even a satisfying act of spite but with little real cost. But people who are in areas dependent on exporting industry have a very great deal to lose. Sunderland voted 61% Leave and its local economy relies on the Nissan car plant, who issued a pointed ‘no comment’ on the result. We will see what happens.

      • Staberinde says:

        You are, of course, correct. I should have referred to ‘perception’ of having little skin in the game. But the Sunderlanders surely weren’t interested in the quantum of their living standards and opportunities but were instead looking at broad categories of lifestyle outcomes. “Shit job, poor prospects”, if the economy tanks, is still “Shit job, poor prospects”. Society has a very strong narrative saying that the only way to escape these lifestyles is via lottery – literally winning the lottery, or winning the X-Factor, a reality show or becoming a DJ or footballer. “Head down, work hard” doesn’t deliver for vast numbers of people – and all we’ve offered is a gamble. Are we surprised so many took it?

  9. NeilW says:

    The EU enforced, in its documentation, the unholy alliance between the metropolitan leftie liberals and the money grabbing free-market Tories.

    Quite literally proposing anything else became illegal. It cannot be done.

    Now it can. Big ideas can come forward: rejecting single regulatory areas as favouring large corporations over small, freeing central banks to allow governments to have first access to a country’s resources, net-zero migration polices that focus upon maintaining the sustainable ecology of a country and preventing brain drain from developing nations.

    The strait-jacket is off, and those who learn to use the new degrees of freedom first will win this peace.

    • Jim Burge says:

      The trouble is that those money grabbing free-market Tories are still going to be in charge so I am not sure things are going to go as well as you suggest.

    • DragonMike says:

      I think Labour have definitely recognised that they have no idea what they want to do….

  10. Person_XYZ says:

    I note that the companies at the vanguard of tax avoidance (Apple, Google etc.) are also at the vanguard of LGBT rights as well.

  11. Thanks as ever Rick, excellent stuff (of course); but can I add (predictably?) a bit of gender analysis? As an, um, old lady, myself, I’m struggling with the accusations – which have been made – that I ignored the will of my grandchildren; f course I didn’t, as a very firm #RemaIN-er, but I’m still under the suspicion.

    One thing here strikes me hard: the vote does seem to pivot around levels of education. A few of us, maybe 5%, more for boys and fewer for girls, of the early boomers managed, often against the odds, to become first generation graduates, but many didn’t; and the truth is even more stark for people older than that.

    I know there’s a bit of levelling between voters born during WWII – when young women took ‘men’s’ jobs – but other then that the Leave Remain difference becomes greater with age, just as does the gender-survival differential.

    So I think what I’m saying is there are a lot of very elderly women who had zero chance of a decent education or livelihood (even less chance than their husbands, now long gone) and who probably voted Out, feeling that was the only way their ‘voice’ would be heard.

    I’m not pleased about this, but could I be at least a bit correct?


  12. Jon says:

    FWIW, Tunbridge Wells voted 55/45 for remain.

  13. Gavin says:

    I think one minor point not to be over looked is HM Forces and its Veterans they have been systematically arse raped over the years cuts hear cuts there Regiments amalgamated or even disbanded. Add to that the very thought of loosing our Forces to the EU to potentially be run by a foreign national even a Frenchman maybe is enough to make serving members and the countless millions of veterans from as far back as WW2 vote leave. Add to that the over stretched Police force, Fire service, NHS staff and there veterans all in the same boat. People who had been told there pensionable age was no longer 60 that they had to work just a few more years then you can enjoy time with the grandchildren. But this I just my humble opinion from my own research of friends and family.

  14. A very interesting piece, and any analysis that leaves out the richer Brexit/Kipper voters of the South has a large hole. My personal opinion (as a BSiE volunteer) going into the final weeks of the campaign should have targetted these voters harder, as they may have had more success especially once Corbyn’s attitude was clear.

    However, this piece and so many like it seems to miss the billions and billions of the worlds poor who have benefited from globalisation, as show by the now famous graph of the changes income of the world by income percentiles. It’s they who have benefited most, beyond ‘evil big business’. It’s hard not to think that any heavily protectionist stance by the West at large would have condemned many more of the world’s poorest to remaining in poverty.

  15. Gerry Lynch says:

    Great post – but too simple. As a Remainer, we didn’t lose this among solid blocs, we lost it in the margins. Culturally traditional people with strong senses of English and/or British nationalism – let alone those who wanted hanging back – were always going to vote against us. We lost this among the 18% of high income death penalty opponents who voted Leave; the lefties who wobbled but ultimately thought of Greece and voted Leave; the liberals who wanted an EU but a different one who voted Leave because we gave them no clear path to one; among the people who hated Farage and Boris, but thought sticking one up to Juncker mattered more than sticking one up to them.
    Your post quotes “Bringing together the dissatisfied of Tunbridge Wells and the downtrodden of Merseyside is a remarkable feat, and it stems from UKIP’s empathy for those who have been left behind”. Yet Remain got 58% in Liverpool and 55% in Tunbridge Wells (a place very different from popular imagination anyway). Even in Knowsley, one of the poorest and most monochromely White British places in England, we got over 48%. Glasgow voted Remain by 2-to-1 (on a poor turnout) and we only lost almost entirely Protestant East Belfast by a whisker. We won North Down 52-48 – you need to come from Northern Ireland to understand how gobsmackingly good a performance that was. “Culture” is a complex beast. Merseyside just about remained culturally ours, but it should have been better, and we crumbled in the North East entirely.
    There is a lot that is right here, and I really enjoyed the post, but it is far too simplistic. If there is ever a second referendum (and I have my doubts), then we’re going to have to figure out why we lost Bradford, Birmingham and Slough and won Newham by only 6% and Hounslow by a whisker. It wasn’t because we lost traditional English conservatives (of whatever social class) harking back to a pre-immigration, pre-globalisation, lily white 1950s England. Similarly, we lost this in part because only 35% of under 25s, 49% of people in West Belfast and 57% of people in Glasgow actually voted.
    6 weeks ago, we were heading for majorities in North East England and Wales and a crushing 90%+ victory among Muslims. All those groups swung heavily against us during the campaign, and we lost the first two. How the hell did we lose Wales? The very late swing in our favour among high-education Tories, and it was quite obvious here in the southern shires, wasn’t enough to save us.
    We need to accept that selling the EU was hard after the crushing of southern Europe under austerity – and I’m no socialist, I’m a proud centrist who normally finds the words “austerity” and “neo-liberalism” act as a laxative – and the utter lack of European solidarity seen in the handling of the refugee crisis.
    There is another day. We may trigger Article 50 and we may not. There may be a second referendum. Whatever happens, there is still a Europe and the nations of this disunited kingdom are still part of it in every way other than participation in the EU institutions. We must not make an idol of those institutions. They are remote and disconnected, and the battles that must be fought now are too important to be dragged down by them.

  16. Bobele says:

    Very interesting post. I would like to see an analysis of the role of the media – did it lead opinion, or is readership a proxy for the cultural dimension?

  17. richdebonnaire says:

    Reblogged this on Transports of Delight (and other things) and commented:
    Very interesting analysis about the anger surrounding the Brexit vote..lots of food for thought here.

  18. Marco says:

    Thanks for the good explanation of neo liberalism, I’ve seen it appear in a lot of stuff put up by both the left and right. Must admit I thought you were an economist.

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  21. Actually, Tunbridge Wells voted Remain…

  22. Very interesting post! I wonder how much correlation there is also between people who expect to move within the next 3 years (either within the U.K or abroad) and those who voted to Remain, and those who don’t expect to move/can’t move (e.g. the retired, those who’s work depends on the specific place they are living, and those trapped in poverty) and those who voted to Leave? Or if there is a correlation between the number of moves that you have made in your life and the way you voted, with people who have made a lower number of house moves tending to vote Leave?
    Neoliberalism seems to require a flexible, rootless workforce that makes it very difficult for local communities and the environment to flourish, as very few people have the time or resources or think they are going to be sticking around long enough to help form and protect them. For the people who can’t move around anymore this must be hard to cope with, and immigrants (who epitomise this flexible workforce) become the scapegoats, and leaving the EU a possible solution. I’ve written a blog post about this issue from my point of view as a British immigrant living in Brussels, this is the link in case you are interested: https://laratheescapeartist.com/2016/06/27/brexit-and-the-law-of-immigration/

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  24. Jonny says:

    A fabulous, thought-provoking post. Thank you. I spent ten weeks going up and down the UK talking to voters and there are a few things worth mentioning. One is ignorance and confusion. A significant proportion of voters had literally no idea what they were voting on – what the EU is, what the impact of their vote would be, what Leaving would mean. To many it felt like a very remote Conservative leadership contest where they could give the government/establishment/London a good kicking and there would be no consequences. Many people genuinely thought the entire vote was about immigration. There was no question of them analysing trade-offs (single market access vs free movement); for many this was ‘would you like immigration to continue or would you like it to stop’. And for some of the immigration voters this wasn’t about EU immigration either – it was about the Syrian hordes, unaccompanied children, ‘Muslims’. Lastly I began to wonder a lot about the status quo argument – that voters would lean back towards Remain because it was the status quo. In fact I think that for many disliking the EU and wanting to get out of it was the status quo – the product of decades of stories about ‘Brussels’. That made the Remain campaign that much more difficult. Anyway, some thoughts, not nearly as clever as yours…

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  31. Jekanyika says:

    I know this has been up a while but those Ashcroft polls look a bit off. How can 69% of leavers think the green movement is a force for ill, but 38% of them think it’s a force for good? The numbers don’t add up.

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