Identity trumps economics

Britain has voted to leave the EU. While the results are still being digested the numbers that have emerged contain two clear messages.

First, Eurosceptics drew much of their support from more economically disadvantaged areas of England. The quiet fear among some that it would be regions outside of London that would pull Britain out of the EU, and while the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish voted to remain, has now been realised.

Public support for Brexit arrived predominantly, although not exclusively, from the same disadvantaged and mainly white parts of England that had already been drifting away from the main parties and toward the populist UK Independence party.

Support for Leave surpassed 68 per cent in eastern areas such as Boston, Thurrock, Fenland, Tendring, Basildon, Castle Point and Great Yarmouth. The public revolt against the EU thus recruited its strongest support in the parts of the country that in earlier centuries launched revolts against London and Westminster elites.

But Brexit was also fuelled by the so-called “left behind” communities elsewhere in the country, in the Midlands, the north-east and north-west, with noticeably strong results in places including north-east Lincolnshire, Ashfield and Cannock Chase. In these areas voters have sent a clear message to David Cameron — they want to withdraw from the EU and want overall levels of immigration reduced. They were not prepared to settle for the minor reforms that have been tabled thus far and wanted to voice their anger to elites who have consistently over-promised and under-delivered on this issue. Identity has trumped economics.

Such areas and the life experience of their voters contrast sharply with what can be seen in places that turned out in large numbers for Remain. It is telling that some of the places that gave the lowest levels of support to Brexit include Hackney, Lambeth, Haringey, Islington, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Richmond-upon-Thames, Kensington and Chelsea and Tower Hamlets — all urban, diverse and relatively affluent areas that feel broadly at ease with the EU, immigration and the global market. Scotland, Northern Ireland and London now find themselves in an awkward alliance, staring at an electorate in England that feels triumphant and holds a fundamentally different outlook. It is difficult to escape from the conclusion that Britain will soon face renewed constitutional crises.

Second, the vote for Brexit is also rooted strongly in Labour’s working-class heartlands, revealing once again the sharp disconnect between Labour and its more traditional supporters. One of the big stories of the night was the sheer level of public support for Brexit in Wales, which like Scotland was once an area that the Labour party could rely on for tribal loyalty.

There were warning signs of what was to come, notably at the Welsh Assembly elections last month that saw Ukip win representation in the devolved assembly. But now in former industrial strongholds like Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, Wrexham, Caerphilly and Neath Port Talbot more than 55 per cent of people turned out to express their opposition to the EU, which like globalisation more generally they do not feel has changed their lives for the better.

It was the same story in other Labour heartlands, reviving questions about the deteriorating health of the party’s relationship with its working-class, disadvantaged voters. Mainly white and working-class communities such as Hartlepool, Ashfield, Doncaster, Barnsley, Middlesbrough, Blackpool and Burnley rejected the advice of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, his shadow chancellor John McDonnell and prominent Labour moderniser Chuka Umunna and instead gave Leave at least 65 per cent of the vote. For this reason there are as many questions for the main party of opposition as there are for the governing party.

While Mr Cameron will come under immediate pressure to resign, the dynamics of the vote will also inevitably give further ammunition to Mr Corbyn’s critics who will argue that he simply failed to rally the middle-class and young progressives, perhaps most notably in London where turnout appears to have failed to live up to expectations. Disillusioned Labour MPs will no doubt point to findings in the polls, which only a few weeks ago suggested that nearly one in two Labour voters did not even know where the party stood on the referendum question. It may well be that both of the two main parties that once governed British politics are soon thrown into turmoil.

The writer is a senior visiting fellow at Chatham House

Europe homepage

About The Author