Blog Post

UK political elite used poverty & immigration fears to secure leave vote

The bulk of UK Leave voters come from disadvantaged areas, and perceive immigration as a threat. But significant exceptions to this trend in England and most importantly in Scotland make it hard to draw a simple causal link between wealth, immigration, and voting patterns.

By: Date: June 29, 2016 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

One of the dominant explanations of the UK’s Leave vote in the EU referendum is that the most disadvantaged parts of the country voted against EU membership to express their discontent against the ruling elite, as a headline in The Guardian recently read: ‘If you’ve got money, you vote in… if you haven’t got money, you vote out.’

The argument goes that the UK pays an excessive financial contribution to the EU, which could be spent on public services, and that the UK accepts too many EU citizens, who take jobs from British natives. In sum, the losers of European integration in the UK revolted against an EU considered to be responsible for this state of affairs: they voiced their discontent by casting a vote Leave.

The economic distress-immigration-EU connection was in part a conscious political construct used for electoral purposes

But a close examination of the referendum results with wealth levels (as seen through ‘declining cities’) and immigration levels shows that the link is not automatic. There are multiple exceptions. Some areas with high levels of immigration voted Remain, as well as some poorer cities. This suggests that the economic distress-immigration-EU connection was in part a conscious political construct used for electoral purposes.

Wealth and ‘declining cities’

The narrative connecting economic distress and vote Leave is partly confirmed when looking at the UK’s declining cities and their vote in the referendum. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently published a report on tackling city decline. The study outlines an index of ‘relative decline’ based on “changes in employment rates, levels of high-qualified workers, number and type of full-time jobs, net migration rates and population changes.”

The tables below show the 20 most struggling cities and the 20 cities faring best in the ranking of the 74 UK cities analysed in the report. The link between the economic distress of declining cities and vote Leave is clear. The first two most struggling cities, Rochdale and Burnley, massively voted Leave, at 60.1% and 66.6% respectively. The vast majority of these 20 cities voted Leave, sometimes by an impressive margin such as Hull (67.6%), Middlesbrough (65.5%) and Stoke (11th, 69.4%). At the opposite end of the spectrum, Oxford (70.3%), Edinburgh (74.4%), and Cambridge (73.8%) massively voted Remain.

But important exceptions arise. In the list of the most struggling cities, it is noticeable that Dundee, Glasgow and Liverpool overwhelmingly voted Remain (at 59.8%, 66.6%, and 58.2% respectively). It is also noticeable that Manchester (45th in the table) massively voted Remain at 60.4%.

At the opposite end, Milton Keynes, in spite of being at the top of the table of the best faring UK cities, voted Leave at 51.4%. It is also noticeable that the turnout of the most struggling cities was on average much lower than the turnout of the cities faring better economically.

A simple causal link between struggling cities and vote Leave is therefore difficult to draw.

A simple causal link between struggling cities and vote Leave is therefore difficult to draw. With a population of around 600,000, Glasgow is the fourth UK city, and is certainly not a negligible exception. Glasgow also has strikingly the lowest turnout of the ten biggest UK cities.

Immigration

Immigration is the other explanatory factor often advanced to explain the Leave vote. According to this narrative, immigration is responsible for the UK citizens’ economic distress, EU and non-EU migrants take the jobs away from British natives, and the EU is responsible for that immigration.

The UK’s Office for National Statistics provides a map of migration levels in the UK. Overall, 13% of the population was born outside the UK. The last columns of tables 1 and 2 show the percentage of non-UK born population in the UK cities mentioned above.

The alleged link between immigration and vote Leave shows multiple exceptions.

The alleged link between immigration and vote Leave shows multiple exceptions. Wigan, one of the UK cities with the smallest share of non-UK born population (4%), massively voted Leave (63.9%). So did Sunderland (5% non-UK born population, 61.3% Leave), and Blackpool (6% non-UK born population, 67.5% Leave). In these cases, it is difficult to see how such low levels of immigration could have posed any sort of economic distress.

But Nottingham has by far one of the largest shares of non-UK born population (22%), and voted Leave only by a small margin (50.8%). Glasgow and Dundee also stand out again, with their massive Remain vote combined with a share of non-UK born population on par with the UK average.

At the other end of the spectrum, the best faring UK cities have a greater share of non-UK born population, and voted Remain. Besides London, Oxford, and Cambridge, Reading (25% non-UK born population, 58% Remain) stands out. Only Peterborough, with 21% of the population not born in the UK, and a massive vote for Leave (60.9%), highlights a possible link between the level of immigration and the vote cast in the UK’s EU referendum.

The paradox is therefore that the areas with the smallest proportion of immigrants tended to vote Leave. This contradicts the claim that immigration put pressure on the local job market.

What conclusions can be drawn?

Two lessons can be drawn from these observations.

First, Scotland is clearly set on a different political and sociological path from England. The interpretation of the role and influence of the EU is different among all social groups. It is true that some English towns voted to Remain. Most obviously London, but also Manchester (60.4%), Liverpool (58.2%), and Newcastle by a small margin (50.7%). But these towns remain exceptions in England’s political landscape. All Scottish constituencies, by contrast, voted Remain, regardless of their wealth and immigration levels.

The wealth-immigration-EU link was used as a means to explain economic and social discontent.

Second, and deriving from the first, the link between wealth, immigration, and the UK’s EU participation appears to be a construct created and fed by part of the political elite. The wealth-immigration-EU link was used as a means to explain economic and social discontent.

Zsolt Darvas has argued that as UK unemployment is close to its lowest point since 1975, “it is hard to see how immigrants have taken away jobs of [UK] natives on a large scale.” Further to Zsolt’s point, the data analysed above show that the presence of immigrants did not automatically lead to a Leave vote. This means that it was the perception that immigration could be a problem that really influenced the vote.

Popular attitudes to immigration are markedly different in Scotland. Glasgow was the first UK city to welcome Syrian refugees, and is the Scottish city with the largest share of people born outside the UK. Until now, Scotland has accepted a third of the UK’s Syrian refugees. This did not prevent Glasgow in particular and Scotland in general from voting massively in favour of staying in the EU.

It is therefore difficult to see the Brexit vote as being exclusively about poverty, as indicated by cities’ decline, and immigration. This can be explained by the way that part of the political elite blamed the UK population’s economic distress on immigration, and conveniently used the EU as a scapegoat for this situation.

 


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

View comments
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Can EU actors keep using common law after Brexit?

English common law is the choice of law for financial contracts, even for parties in EU members with civil law systems. This creates a lucrative legal sector in the UK, but Brexit could make UK court decisions difficult to enforce in the EU. Parties will be able to continue using English common law after Brexit, but how will these contracts be enforced? Some continental courts are preparing to make judicial decisions on common law cases in the English language.

By: Uuriintuya Batsaikhan and Dirk Schoenmaker Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: June 22, 2017
Read article More by this author

Parliamentary Testimony

House of Commons

Exiting the European Union Committee

On 19 April 2017 Zsolt Darvas appeared as a witness at the Exiting the European Union Committee, the House of Commons, United Kingdom.

By: Zsolt Darvas Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, House of Commons, Testimonies Date: June 20, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Brexit and the future of the Irish border

The future of the Irish land border has been thrown into uncertainty by Brexit. The UK's confirmation that it will leave the EU's single market and customs union implies that customs checks will be needed. However, there is little desire for hard controls from any of the parties involved. This is especially true for Theresa May's potential partner, the DUP. Creative solutions are needed to reach a solution.

By: Filippo Biondi Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: June 19, 2017
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

The Mariel Boatlift Controversy

What's at stake: how does immigration affect the wages of local workers? One way to answer this question is by exploiting a natural experiment. The Mariel boatlift of 1980 constituted an ideal experiment - bringing a sudden and large increase of low-skilled workers in just one city - but results are still hotly debated.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: June 5, 2017
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Substance requirements for financial firms moving out from the UK

In the run-up to Brexit, UK-based financial firms are considering how to organize their operations across the future divide between the UK and EU27. This event will discuss the regulatory requirements on how self-sustaining the operations in the EU should be, and implications for the single market and third countries.

Speakers: Gerry Cross, Simon Gleeson and Nicolas Véron Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: June 2, 2017
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

Pharmaceutical industry at risk from Brexit

Pharmaceuticals are a hugely important industry for the EU and the UK. The sector creates thousands of jobs, billions of euros in exports, and is Europe’s most research-intense industry. But will Brexit mean for pharma? Border delays, disruption to R&D and regulatory divergence all pose hazards.

By: Jianwei Xu Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: May 31, 2017
Read article More on this topic

Opinion

How the G20 should change its approach to migration and development in Africa

The G20 is redesigning its Africa strategy. Meanwhile, migration from Africa is an increasingly controversial topic in European politics, even though total flows are stable. Many hope that economic development in Africa will reduce migration pressures. But many African countries are so poor that increased wealth will actually accelerate emigration - by giving people the means to leave. The EU should support economic development in Africa, but Europe also needs to realise that migration from Africa is likely to increase in the coming years.

By: Guntram B. Wolff and Maria Demertzis Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 30, 2017
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

UK economic performance post-Brexit

What’s at stake: Almost a year after the UK voted to leave the European Union, its economic performance has showed mixed results. The risks of a Brexit-induced recession do not seem to be materialising. On the contrary, up until the end of 2016 the UK saw a continuation of strong consumer spending and strong output in consumer-focused activities. However, the UK economy is showing signs of slowing down in the first quarter of 2017, with weak growth in the services sector and business investments. In addition, strong consumption growth started to cool down as individuals’ purchasing power declines due to a weaker exchange rate. This leads to a question whether it is the beginning of the Brexit slowdown. We review the contributions made on this topic in the last year.

By: Uuriintuya Batsaikhan and Justine Feliu Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: May 15, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

International arbitration is the way to settle the UK’s Brexit bill

The UK-EU financial settlement risks becoming a toxic stumbling block in Brexit negotiations. But there are actually much more important issues to discuss. To diffuse the issue, both sides should agree to independent international arbitration.

By: André Sapir Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: May 11, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Brexit will change millions of lives. Our leaders must do more than posture

From the land border with Ireland to expats’ pension rights, there is much to negotiate.

By: Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: May 8, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

How will Europe's banking system respond to future challenges?

After the financial crisis, the EU has taken measures to create conditions for a safer banking sector. One of the key measures to do that is the creation of the banking union. How successful has the implementation of the new framework been so far? How will issues in the Italian banking sector be addressed? And how will Brexit change the European banking sector?

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Date: May 5, 2017
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

Policy Contribution

Europe’s role in North Africa: development, investment and migration

The authors of this Policy Contribution propose five ways in which EU policymakers can contribute to development in North Africa and build partnerships on trade, investment and migration.

By: Uri Dadush, Maria Demertzis and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: April 8, 2017
Load more posts