It’s common to hear that Brexit has changed everything. And as with all such clichés, there is both an element of exaggeration and an element of truth to the claim. The decision of British voters to leave the European Union has had a fundamental effect in both revealing and deepening existing cleavages in British public opinion, and opening up new ones.
Studying public opinion is valuable for two reasons. Clearly, it gives an insight into the politics of the here and now. But it also allows for evidenced-based introspection about how we got here. The referendum brought to the fore many of the social, political and economic divides in the UK that had long gone unaddressed or even unnoticed.
The idea that those who voted for Brexit represented the economically ‘left-behind’ contains a kernel of truth. Even when accounting for age, region, religion, race, gender and housing, a voter was 10% more likely to vote for Leave if they were working class. But the claim also represents an over-simplification. After all, the declining size of the working class in the UK means a substantial number of middle class voters had to have voted for Leave. According to the British Election Study, only 21% of Leave votes came from those with ‘routine’ or ‘semi-routine’ jobs. Indeed, it was the middle classes whose support was most important for Brexit – they made up 59% of the Leave voters.
Since the referendum, socio-economic class has in fact become a much less obvious driver of electoral support than it once was. Far from happening overnight, however, this was the acceleration of long-term trends. Support among working class and blue collar voters had drifted away from Labour for some time. In 2010, for the first time, middle class Labour voters outnumbered working class Labour voters. In 2015, the working class shift was reflected in UKIP’s electoral surge. And, according to YouGov, the Conservative working class vote surged from 32% in 2015 to 44% in 2017. At the recent general election, if you lived in a household where the main breadwinner worked in skilled manual labour, you were more likely, by 47% to 40%, to vote for the Conservatives than the Labour Party.
While these shifts are important, socio-economic background was not the clearest indicator of how people voted. Rather, what age you are mattered more than what job you do. Some 73% of 18 to 24 year olds voted Remain. They were also notably less likely to vote than older voters, but this difference in turnout was not decisive. British Election Study surveys have suggested that, in order to have to have overturned the result, a startling 97% of under 45s would have had to make it to the ballot box as opposed to the 65% who actually voted.
Since the referendum, this generation gap has continued to mark our politics. The 2017 general election saw the largest gap in how different generations voted that has ever been measured in Britain. What particularly confounded pollsters was the fact that gap in rates of turnout between young and old narrowed significantly. As the British Election Study has showed, it was – if perhaps not a ‘Youthquake’ – a spike among those in their late 20s and 30s in voting, and voting Labour. There was also a fairly dramatic increase in those over 60 voting Conservative, no less significant for the fact it was more expected prior to 8 June 2017.
These socio-economic and generational factors are both intrinsically linked to education. While 72% of people with no qualifications voted to leave, only 35% of people with a degree did. Over half of the total votes that Remain received were from voters with a degree. Young people and those in higher socio-economic brackets are more likely to have had access to higher education. But a gap of 30% persisted, even when other factors such as age and region were accounted for. This is another trend that extended into the general election campaign: in 2015 YouGov calculated that Cameron’s Conservative Party won among graduates by 1%. In 2017 Labour won by 17% among those educated to degree level.
Perhaps the most interesting spatial dimension of the Brexit vote was the sharp contrast between cities and their surrounding towns, especially in the North. For example, Yorkshire and the Humber voted Leave by a 16% margin. A majority of voters in Leeds voted Remain; Wakefield, a 10-minute train away, voted Leave by a 30% margin. The referendum revealed a longstanding tension between major cities, at ease with immigration and globalisation, and deindustrialised towns that have suffered most from the effects of economic decline, and political negligence. If the referendum laid bare this geographical division, the general election of 2017 was proof of its persistence. As Will Jennings has shown, the electoral swing towards the Labour Party was over 10% in cities but less than half that - 4.1% - in small towns.
And, on top of all this, there is identity. NatCen found that 66% of those with social conservative views voted Leave, and just 18% of social liberals. It is interesting that, by looking at data from the British Electoral Study, some 80% of the votes cast in June 2016 could have been anticipated by voters’ stance on the European Union when asked in 2010.
This has to a degree engendered a post-referendum politics in Britain based on social identity, hinging in part on voters’ attitudes to Brexit. Labour gained most strongly in areas – most emblematically, Canterbury and Kensington – that backed Remain. Conservative gains, where they were, were in areas with large Leave votes – most notably, Mansfield, which had voted 70.9% for Leave. Given that, it is unsurprising the British Election Study found Brexit was the most important factor identified by voters in the 2017 general election.
And these attitudes may well prove sticky. Opinions about the European Union were fundamentally about people’s identity. For the moment – as Sara Hobolt, Thomas Lepper and James Tilley show – the referendum has provided each side with a new tribe – Leavers and Remainers. And one thing we know about identities is that they do not easily shift. Eighteen months on from the referendum, its effects on our politics show no sign of dissipating.
Professor Anand Menon is director and Alan Wager research associate, at The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece is part of the report ‘Brexit and public opinion’ by the UK in a Changing Europe