Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire, claimed that his constituents were telling him they we’re frustrated by the lack of progress on Brexit. Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, thought that was a bit odd. “I’m in a leave seat and my constituents never ever say this stuff,” she said. “Where is he hearing these opinions?” She reckoned he and his fellow Tory MPs were making it all up.
I knock doors every other week pretty much, and have weekly phonebanks, me & my office speak to 100s of constituents every week, I’ll wager more than any of these Tory MPs who claim people are telling them things convieniently that entirely back up their opinion. It’s bollocks
— Jess Phillips (@jessphillips) October 18, 2018
They might not be though. It is quite likely that they are both right. A quick glance at the two constituencies shows that they are very different places. Both are estimated to have had a Leave vote of around 60 percent but there the similarity ends. North Shropshire and Birmingham Yardley sit either side of the UK average on a number of measures.
Comparing Birmingham Yardley and North Shropshire (all figures percentages)
Source: House of Commons Library
Birmingham Yardley is the 21st most deprived constituency in England while North Shropshire is 315th. In general, North Shropshire’s population is older, whiter, more financially secure and more middle-class than that of Birmingham Yardley. According to constituency profiles developed by Electoral Calculus, North Shropshire is likely to be more economically right-wing than the rest of the UK, while Birmingham Yardley is a similar number of degrees to the left.
The Brexit vote is often depicted as a working-class revolt but as Danny Dorling says, according to Ashcroft polling data, ABC1 voters made up 59 percent of the Brexit vote – higher than their proportion of the general population. A majority of working class voters might have voted for Brexit but fewer of them turned out. It was the middle-class voters who made it happen.
Working class people were much more likely not to vote, whereas middle-class people, particularly older middle-class people voted.
And your typical Leave voter was a conservative Tory voter who wasn’t rich but wasn’t particularly poor.
So your typical Leave voter was very much like the typical voter in North Shropshire.
The people who want Brexit, I mean really want it, tend to be middle-class and middle-aged to elderly. As IpsosMORI consistently reports, it is these voters who see it as the most important issue.
Owen Paterson and Jess Phillips are probably both right. North Shropshire is just the sort of place where people are likely to bend their MP’s ear about Brexit. And Birmingham Yardley isn’t.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that it is Labour seats which are seeing a shift in opinion against Brexit. Some of this is because people who have turned 18 since the referendum are predominantly Labour and Remain supporters and are helping to shift the balance. But many working class voters were never as personally invested in the idea of Brexit in the first place. They are also the ones likely to suffer most from the economic consequences. Birmingham Yardley has seen the 8th highest swing to Remain. Based on these figures, the constituency would probably now vote narrowly to stay in the EU.
But think what might happen in a place like Birmingham Yardley if the political party with which most voters identify were to campaign wholeheartedly against Brexit and the havoc it will wreak on working class areas. With some clear leadership, the trickle of support away from Brexit in Labour areas would become a flood. Jess Phillips came to a similar conclusion a few days ago:
I understand that Labour Party is scared of pushing for a peoples vote, it’s a tough gig, no doubt. But hey this is all tough. I get why, just think now is the time to be brave
— Jess Phillips (@jessphillips) December 19, 2018
Labour voters are starting to realise that Brexit will be bad for them. Really bad. Until now, many Labour MPs have been worried that opposing Brexit would see them punished at the ballot box by hordes of angry working class Brexit voters. But working class Brexit support has been overhyped and the ground is now starting to shift. Working class voters are far more likely to punish their MPs for allowing an unnecessary job-destroying catastrophe. For Labour MPs it is less of a risk to campaign against Brexit than it is to blindly plough on with it because they think it’s what their supporters want. Brexit is not Labour’s project. It is the fantasy of conservative middle England. It will be severely damaging for most Labour voters. The party should put all its energy into stopping it.