Brexit: Northern votes not as decisive as assumed

New research challenges prevailing Brexit narrative and offers policy recommendations for the North

New research challenges prevailing Brexit narrative and offers policy recommendations for the North

New research challenges prevailing Brexit narrative and offers policy recommendations for the North

Perceptions of a North-South divide around support for leaving the European Union may not be accurate, according to new research from Manchester Metropolitan University.

Through an analysis of the voting data from the 2016 Referendum and the 2019 European Elections, the research shows that there are not enough Northern voters to have a decisive effect on the support for leaving or remaining in the EU.

Researchers argue that stereotypical depictions of Northerners in public discourse has fuelled a narrative that many Northern communities are driving support for Brexit – but the narrative is not supported by the voting figures.

Data shows that, in 2016, there were as many leave voters in London as there were in Yorkshire – 9% of the national leave vote. Voters in the South East represented nearly one in seven of all UK leave voters.

Vote share

The North West delivered 11% of the national leave vote – not significantly more than in the East of England, South West and West Midlands. The North East delivered only 4% of national leave voters – fewer even than remain-supporting Scotland.

Overall, there were 4.3 million leave voters in the North, versus 4.1 million in London and the South East – this represents 24.9 and 23.4 per cent of the national leave vote, respectively.

Dr Craig Berry, Reader in Political Economy at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “While the voting result in the North of England in 2016 certainly favoured leaving the EU over remaining, there is sufficient evidence to strongly refute the popular notion that Northern voters are driving Brexit against the wishes of voters in Southern, metropolitan areas.

“The depiction of the North’s support for Brexit is far too simplistic. In planning a way forward in the Brexit process, it would be much more helpful to consider the support for Brexit across the UK as a product of the government’s failure to address endemic problems at a local level.”

The new research, published today (June 18), calls for a focus on a set of recommendations that would see the North better represented in the political decisions that lie ahead for the government.

It makes a series of recommendations for a cross-political party and cross-regional approach to Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

This includes substantial new, devolved powers and resources for local areas to gain control over regional budgets and calls for a reversal of cuts to local authority expenditure.

Dr Berry said: “A first step towards constructing a political settlement and economic model, which better represents and supports the North and other disadvantaged parts of the UK, is to challenge the crude depiction and exploitation of Northern voters in prevailing narratives around the 2016 Brexit vote and 2019 European Elections.”

Policy proposals

In forming the new recommendations, researchers at Manchester Metropolitan considered the potential harm that leaving the EU will cause the regions that voted for Brexit, before analysing voting data and socio-economic backgrounds of voters from the turnout figures across the UK.

By taking into account regional differences in population size and electoral turnout, the research explains how electoral support for Brexit is concentrated in Southern England, rather than the North.

In the 2019 European Elections, the South East again delivered the largest regional proportion of the national vote for the political parties supporting a ‘no-deal’ Brexit (17%) and there were almost as many London-based ‘no deal’ voters as there were in Yorkshire.

Overall, there were just under 1.5 million ‘no deal’ voters across the Northern regions, versus just over 1.4 million in London and the South East – this represents 25.2 and 24.3 per cent of the national ‘no deal’ vote.

The findings inform a set of policy proposals designed to allow the North’s interests to be better deliberated and represented in the Brexit process and post-Brexit governance.

Dr Berry added: “With a new Prime Minister soon to take office, both main political parties in disarray, and the next Article 50 deadline only a few months away, it is imperative that a cross-party and cross-regional approach to EU withdrawal is adopted.

“Implementing the series of radical, domestic reforms outlined in our research will transform political and economic governance in the North and other regions. These reforms would become ever more essential if the UK were to leave the EU, which in all likelihood would exacerbate the UK’s geographical inequalities.”

See the full research paper here: "Brexit and the North: Not our problem".

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