Britain and Europe

“A victory for ordinary people”: Why did the voters choose Brexit?

29 June 2016

The vote distribution from last week’s referendum paints a picture of a divided Britain

Sara Hobolt

There is a sense of shock both in Britain and across Europe in response to the Brexit vote. Politicians and markets have reacted as though the outcome of the referendum was entirely unexpected. But it should not have come as a surprise. The polls had consistently suggested that this referendum would be a very close race and many had put the leave side ahead in the days and weeks leading up the vote. More generally, we know that referendums on European integration are highly unpredictable, and that voters often reject the proposals put to them by the government and supported by a consensus among mainstream political parties and experts. The Brexit vote also represents a victory for the populist forces that have gained ground in electoral contests across Europe in recent years, generally fuelled by worries about immigration, lack of economic opportunities and anger with the political class.

Why did British voters reject the EU?

One reason why referendum outcomes are  so unpredictable is that they present ordinary citizens with an opportunity to ‘stick it’ to the political establishment. A key division found in many referendums is one between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’. In the in the Brexit referendum, this populist sentiment was successfully exploited by the leave camp who portrayed the vote as a chance for ordinary citizens to “take back control” from the elites in Brussels.  In the words of Ukip’s leader Nigel Farage on the morning after the referendum: “This is a victory for ordinary, decent people who’ve taken on the establishment and won”.

This anti-elite sentiment has a strong appeal among voters, especially those who feel disaffected with the political establishment and threatened by the forces of globalisation and European integration. Growing concerns about immigration are at the heart of this disaffection. This has long been one of the most salient issue to British voters, even overtaking the economy as the most important issue. Yet it is a concern which mainstream political parties have failed to adequately address. The leave side successfully presented the referendum as a unique opportunity to regain control of British borders and restrict immigration. Survey evidence suggests that this was a core concern among leave voters, and ultimately outweighed the fear of economic insecurity that the remain camp had argued would follow from a leave vote.  According to one YouGov poll, 84 per cent of leave voters thought that there would be “less immigration into Britain” if we left the EU, compared to only 27 per cent of remain voters. The same survey asked about whether Britain would be worse or better off economically following Brexit, and only four per cent of leave voters thought Britain would be worse off, despite a broad consensus among experts that this would indeed be the case. In contrast, 78 per cent of remainers thought Britain would be worse off economically (YouGov 20-22 June 2016). In a survey that I designed with Christopher Wratil, we asked over 5,000 British citizens to think about the arguments they have personally heard during the referendum campaign and summarise the main argument in their own words. When analysing these thousands of open-ended responses, we find that immigration and the economy emerge as the main arguments. Moreover, as shown in the figure below, both leave and (at the time) undecided voters found the immigration argument very persuasive, but remain voters less so.

Figure 1: How persuasive is the immigration argument?

Source: Original poll by Sara Hobolt and Christopher Wratil  conducted by YouGov between  9-11 May 2016 with financial support from the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust (SG153370) . The figure shows the results from structural topic model and depicts the persuasiveness of the immigration argument in the EU referendum to different types of votes.

While there were of course many different reasons motivating people to vote against EU membership, concerns about immigration were undoubtedly an important driver for many, and one that clearly divided the leave and remain camps.

Who voted to leave?

Such fears of immigration and multiculturalism are more pronounced among voters in a more vulnerable position in the labour market. The evidence shows that it was people who feel left behind by the forces of globalisation, those with lower levels of education and working-class occupation, who voted decisively for leave, whereas the ‘winners’ of globalisation – eg highly educated professionals –  were overwhelmingly in favour of remain. There was also a stark generational divide in the UK referendum. Polling evidence suggests that around two-thirds of the over 55s voted to leave the EU, while 70 per cent of the under 25s voted to stay.

The education divide is equally stark as illustrated in the figure below: 68 per cent of graduates favoured remaining in the EU, compared to only 30 per cent of people with only GCSE education or less.

Figure 2: Brexit vote by education

Source: YouGov 23 June 2016

These demographic fault lines are not a uniquely British phenomenon. We see the same divisions when we study Euroscepticism across Europe. Here were find that Euroscepticism is highest among less-educated and less well-off voters, and that it is highly correlated with opposition to immigration. In a number of countries such concerns about the EU and immigration have been translated into a boost in the electoral support for rightwing populist parties, such as Front National in France, Geert Wilders’ Freedom party in the Netherlands, the Danish People’s party in Denmark and the Freedom party in Austria. Indeed, these are the very parties that are now calling for referendums on their countries’ membership of the EU after the Brexit vote.

A divided country

The results of the Brexit referendum portray a deeply divided country, not only along class, education and generational lines, but also in terms of geography. While both England and Wales voted 53 per cent leave, Northern Ireland and Scotland voted remain (at 56 and 62 per cent respectively). The only region within England to vote remain was London, and it did so decisively with 60 per cent of the vote. Generally the remain side did better in the larger multicultural cities and where there were more graduates, whereas the leave side was strongest in the English countryside and did better than expected in the post-industrial north-eastern towns with larger working class populations. This reflects the socioeconomic differences in Euroscepticism reported above. In the case of Scotland, it also highlights the effect of strong and united political leadership, as the Scottish National party campaigned effectively in favour of continued EU membership. This contrasts with the rest of Britain, where the Conservative party was openly split on the issue while the Labour party conducted a very lacklustre campaign backing the in side.

Figure 3: A map of a divided country

 Note: Yellow indicates that remain won in the area while blue indicates leave won

Again, these divisions reflect wider inequalities and differences in the British society that are unlikely to be resolved by Brexit. But these socioeconomic and geographic differences are not unique to the UK. Across Europe we find similar divisions between the so-called winners of globalisation – the graduates in the urban centres – and those who feel left behind – the less well-educated in smaller towns and in the countryside. While the former tend to embrace European integration and multiculturalism, the latter feel threatened by these forces. Such divisions have been successfully mobilised by populist parties across Europe, especially on the right, who give a voice to the fears of ‘ordinary, decent people’ against a political establishment that has often failed to listen. We see this expressed not only in referendums, but also in the electoral successes of populist Eurosceptic parties that gained around a third of the votes in the last European parliament elections. The key difference between Britain and the rest of Europe is that the mainstream governing parties across Europe are generally firmly pro-EU, while the British Conservative party in particular is deeply divided on the issue. Indeed, the Brexit vote did not come about due to widespread popular demand for a say on Europe, but rather because of internal divisions in the upper echelons of the Conservative party. But, as with so many referendums on the EU, the outcome turned out to have elite-defying consequences.

Photo credit: Ms Jane Campbell / Shutterstock.com