What Really Caused Brexit?

Boston UK
A man walks past a Polish shop in Boston, Britain June 27, 2016. Boston was one of the U.K.'s most pro-leave areas in the EU referendum. Oliver Ellrodt/Reuters

The referendum result is now well known. Leave won its strongest support in the West Midlands (59 percent), East Midlands (59 percent) and North East (58 percent) but attracted its weakest support in Scotland (38 percent), London (40 percent) and Northern Ireland (44 percent).

The Leave vote surpassed 70 percent in 14 authorities, many of which had been previously targeted by the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), like Boston and Castle Point. Leave also polled strongly in Labour-held authorities in the north, winning over 65 percent in places like Hartlepool and Stoke-on-Trent.

At the constituency level it has been estimated that while three-quarters of Conservative seats voted Leave, seven in 10 Labour seats also did. 

Such areas contrast sharply with strongholds of support for Remain, including Lambeth, Hackney, Haringey, Camden and Cambridge. Of the 50 authorities where the Remain vote was strongest, 39 were in London or Scotland. Such results point toward deeper divides, like those outlined in earlier research on the "left behind" voters who propelled UKIP into the mainstream. But to what extent was the vote to Leave the EU motivated by the same currents?

To explore this question, we draw on data from 380 of 382 counting regions in the UK and link this to census data from 2011 (excluding Gibraltar and Northern Ireland for which we lack comparable data on some variables). Our analysis is based on aggregate data, so we need to be cautious about using this data at the level of communities to make assumptions about individuals (more research on that to follow). But, that said, it can still give us some useful insights.

The Leave vote was much higher in authorities where there are substantial numbers of people who do not hold any qualifications, but much lower in areas that have a larger number of highly educated people. Fifteen of the 20 "least educated" areas voted to leave the EU while every single one of the 20 "most educated" areas voted to remain. In authorities with below average levels of education, Leave received 58 percent of the vote but in authorities with above average levels of education it received 49 percent. There were places where the Leave vote was lower than expected based on the average levels of education, which tended to be in Scotland and London. If we exclude London and Scotland from our analysis, then the association between education and the Leave vote becomes far stronger.

There is also a clearly identifiable though slightly weaker association between age and support for Leave. Of the 20 "youngest" authorities 16 voted to Remain. By contrast the Leave vote was much stronger in older areas. Of the 20 oldest local authorities 19 voted to Leave.

What about ethnic diversity and immigration? Did appeals to end free movement have particular resonance in communities where there were large numbers of EU migrants? On the face of it the answer appears to be no. Of the 20 places with the fewest EU migrants, 15 voted to leave. By contrast, of the 20 places with the most EU migrants 18 voted to remain. Many areas that were among the most receptive to Leave had hardly any EU migrants at all.

We can get a clearer idea of the joint impact of these factors by carrying out something called "multivariate regression analysis." This essentially allows us to identify the factors that played the most significant role in driving support for Brexit. Table 1 below presents our results. Don't worry if these numbers make no sense to you as I will explain.

What we are looking at are the factors that influence support for leaving the EU (our dependent variable). In Model 1 you see how the percentage of people with no educational qualifications and who are pensioners are positive and have a few stars by them. This means that they had a significant and positive effect on the Leave vote. If anything, the effect of education on Leave might have been slightly stronger than the effect of age (at least at the aggregate level). But even in places that had similar levels of education, support for Leave was noticeably higher in older communities than younger ones.

By contrast, the static level of European migration has a significant negative effect on the Leave vote. Places with many EU migrants tend to be less likely to vote Leave. And, lastly, you can see how our results show how support for Leave was strikingly lower in London and Scotland. Scotland is especially striking—the Leave vote was 22 points lower than what might have been expected given its level of immigration and its educational and age profile.

Chart 1 Matthew Goodwin

It might be tempting then to conclude that immigration played no part in delivering Brexit. However, a slightly different picture emerges if we also look at changes in the levels of EU migration. Data on recent change is only available for England and Wales and in Model 2 we restrict our analysis to these. Controlling for the effect of overall migration and the other variables in Model 1 (excluding Scotland), those places which experienced an increase in EU migration over the last 10 years tended to be somewhat more likely to vote Leave (b=0.51; p=0.007). Thus, even though areas with relatively high EU migration tended to be more pro-Remain; those places which had experienced a sudden influx of EU migrants over the last 10 years tended to be more pro-Leave. This finding is consistent with the view that it is sudden changes in population that are most likely to fuel concern about immigration.

The results presented so far are consistent with research on UKIP, which emphasizes the party’s appeal among older, working-class, white voters who lack qualifications and skills. Thus, to a certain extent the factors that explain the rise of UKIP also explain why Britain voted for Brexit. This can be seen in Figure 1 below which considers the association between UKIP's support at the 2014 European Parliament elections and the Leave vote at the 2016 referendum. The "R-square" is 0.73, indicating a very strong relationship. By and large, then, authorities that were the most likely to vote for Brexit were the same ones that had given UKIP its strongest support two years earlier. Some are arguing that the Leave vote had nothing to do with UKIP. They are quite wrong.

Chart 2 Matthew Goodwin

However, this clearly is not the whole story. Whereas the average support for UKIP across all authorities in 2014 was 29 per cent, the average support for Leave was 53 per cent. Where did these additional votes come from? Many insurgent parties start life by appealing to a narrow section of society but then, as they grow, they try to widen their appeal into new sections of society. Is this what Ukip’s populist Euroskeptic message achieved?

The answer is both yes and no. Places with older populations are both more likely to have voted for UKIP in 2014 and more likely to have voted Leave in 2016. However, support for Leave in 2016 is slightly less polarized along age lines (r = 0.34) than support for Ukip was in 2014 (r = 0.45). One explanation for this is that the Leave campaign managed to mobilise younger people than Ukip did. By contrast, public support for Brexit (r = 0.53) is more polarized along education lines than support for Ukip was (r = 0.21). This underlines how the referendum really did magnify class divisions within Britain that were already evident and which parties like UKIP had been actively cultivating. It is also worth noting that support for Leave (r = -0.44) is slightly more polarized along immigration lines than even Ukip was in 2014 (r = -0.36). This points to the hardening of what some term a "cosmopolitan vs provincial" divide—and one that looks distinctly unlikely to evaporate in the coming years.

In conclusion, then, our analysis reveals how the 2016 referendum gave full expression to deeper divides in Britain that cut across generational, educational and class lines. The vote for Brexit was anchored predominantly, albeit not exclusively, in areas of the country that are filled with pensioners, low skilled and less well educated blue-collar workers and citizens who have been pushed to the margins not only by the economic transformation of the country, but by the values that have come to dominate a more socially liberal media and political class. In this respect the vote for Brexit was delivered by the "left behind"—social groups that are united by a general sense of insecurity, pessimism and marginalisation, who do not feel as though elites, in Brussels and Westminster, share their values, represent their interests and genuinely empathise with their intense angst about rapid change.

Interestingly, our results also reveal how turnout in the heartlands of Brexit was often higher than average, indicating that it is citizens who have long felt excluded from the mainstream consensus who used the referendum to voice their distinctive views not only about EU membership but a wider array of perceived threats to their national identity, values and ways of life. Yet clearly the "left behind" thesis cannot explain all of the vote for Brexit. Even if support for EU membership is more polarised along education than support for UKIP ever was, the centre of gravity has shifted. This represents a puzzle. Public support for Euroskepticism has both widened and narrowed—it is now more widespread across the country, but in a number of important respects it is also more socially distinctive. In the shadow of the 2016 referendum stands one basic assertion that few would contest: Britain is now more divided than ever.

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent and Senior Visiting Fellow at Chatham House. This piece originally appeared in his newsletter.