Austerity behind Brexit, claim Warwick academics

Credit: prachatai via Flickr

By Alex Seabrook

Austerity was the main factor causing people to vote to leave the European Union on June 23, much more so than immigration, according to evidence published by researchers at the University of Warwick last month.

The researchers compared votes across 380 local authorities throughout the UK with data on immigration to those areas, as well as the effect of fiscal cuts, quality of public services, unemployment, education, crime, and other socio-economic factors.

Whilst immigration from Eastern European countries did play a part, there was a much higher tendency to vote leave in areas with high unemployment, low pay, and poor public services.

Places with a historical tradition of manufacturing employment, such as the North East of England, also had a much higher share of leave voters, suggesting that Brexit was a protest against de-industrialisation, as well as austerity.

The researchers calculated that minor reductions in fiscal cuts would have been enough to have swayed the vote. On average £448 of public spending was cut per person. If that had been reduced by just £41, the public would’ve voted to remain in the EU.

Gaps caused by austerity were also shown to have an effect within cities as well as nationally. Ward level data was compared across four cities: Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham, and Greenwich in London.

Whilst it has been suggested that there was a split between cities voting to remain and rural parts of the country voting to leave, the data showed that in parts of the cities with higher deprivation such as crime and unemployment, more people voted to leave.

The paper also looks at the problems caused by the first past the post voting system. Before the referendum UKIP enjoyed popular support, and, in 2014, won the largest delegation in the European Parliament elections, which used a proportional representation system. The first past the post voting system used in the House of Commons makes it difficult for smaller parties other than Labour and the Conservatives to win seats, and in 2015 UKIP only managed to get one MP.

This divide between high popular support and low political responsibility meant that the party received a lot of media coverage, without the usual scrutiny that larger political parties usually receive.

The researchers claim that under proportional representation, UKIP would have received more media scrutiny, and the public would have been able to make a more informed decision.

The paper rejects the stereotype that racism and xenophobia drove the vote, and was published at the same time as a group of 41 MPs wrote an open letter to the Chancellor Phillip Hammond. The letter, organised by the Vote Leave Watch campaign, demanded that he pledge £350 million a week extra spending on the NHS, in his Autumn Statement later this month.

In the run up to the referendum, prominent Leave campaigners such as Ian Duncan Smith and Nigel Farage were often photographed and filmed in front of the infamous red bus that appeared to promise £350 million spending a week on the NHS. Hours after the referendum results Farage denied he’d ever made the promise.