People pushed to the margins driven to vote for Brexit

31st Aug 2016

People earning less than £20,000 a year, with lower qualifications and living in low-skilled areas were the driving force behind the vote to leave the European Union, research for the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has found.

  • ‘Double whammy’ of low skills and lack of opportunity led to Brexit
  • Low earners, low skilled workers and left behind places drove Leave vote
  • Government must deliver a ‘Britain to work for all’ to heal divisions, says JRF

In one of the first academic analyses to examine individual and place-based characteristics driving the Leave vote, it shows how a lack of opportunity across swathes of the country led to Brexit. It shows how British votes in the referendum were divided across economic, educational and social lines.

It concludes that groups of voters who have been pushed to the margins of society, who live on low incomes, have few qualifications and lack the skills required to prosper in the modern economy, were more likely than others to endorse Brexit.

The feeling of being left behind also stems from where people live. Comparing people with the same income and education, they were much more likely to vote leave if they live in a low-skilled area with few opportunities.

A ‘double whammy’ proved crucial, where people with low skills were ‘further cut adrift’ by a lack of opportunities within their local areas to get ahead.

JRF said the findings were a direct call for the government to make good on its promise of ‘making Britain work for all’, and ensure everyone has the opportunity to build a better life.

It said ensuring prosperity was more equally shared and that people could find thrive and find security in the modern economy was crucial to address the concerns.

The research, by Professor Matthew Goodwin at the University of Kent and Dr Oliver Heath at the Royal Holloway University for JRF, is one of the first academic analysis looking at the role of the characteristics of people and places in the Leave vote. Drawing on data from the British Election Study (BES), the research drilled down into the backgrounds, attitudes and values of Leave voters, painting a detailed picture of what motivated their decision at the referendum.

The research found three key trends behind the Brexit vote:

  1. Incomes. People living in the poorest households, which earn less than £20,000 per year, were much more likely to support leaving the EU than those in the wealthiest households, as were the unemployed, those looking for work, people in low-skilled and precarious manual occupations. In households with incomes of less than £20,000 per year the average support for leave was 58% but in households with incomes over £60,000 per year support for leaving the EU was only 35%. Unemployed people and those looking for work were also far more likely to support Brexit than those in full employment – support for leave among the former was 59% but only 45% among the latter. Other things being equal, support for Leave was 10 points higher among those on less than £20,000 per year than it was among those who earn more than £60,000.
  2. Education. Educational inequality was the standout trend behind the vote, showing that a lack of opportunity for low-skilled workers was a key driving force. Other things being equal, support for Leave was 30 percentage points higher among those with GCSE qualifications or below than it was for people with a degree. Over 70 percent of people with no qualification voted for Brexit, over 70 percent of people with a postgraduate degree voted to remain.
  3. Where people lived. Support for Brexit varied not only according to the type of individuals but the type of area. Those with all levels of qualifications were more likely to vote Leave in low skill areas than in high skill areas. The biggest difference across types of area was for those with A-levels or a degree. In low skill areas the proportion of A-level holders voting leave was closer to that of people with low skills, in high skill areas their vote was much more similar to graduates. Whereas over 70 percent of people in low-skilled communities like Tendring (which covers Clacton) voted for Brexit, over 70 percent of people in very highly-skilled communities like Cambridge voted to remain in the EU.

Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said:

“The research shows how Britain cannot afford to return to business as usual following the vote for Brexit. The result was a wake-up call: for too long, many communities have been struggling as the country’s prosperity passed them by and missed out on opportunities to build a better life.

“With energy focussed on the process of leaving the EU, there’s a danger the concerns of people at home are ignored. This analysis should act as beacon for politicians who often talk about representing the concerns of ordinary people.

“The rapid pace of change in the economy has left too many people without the skills and opportunity to get on in life. We must act to ensure prosperity reaches all corners of the country, and provide everyone the chance to earn a good wage in a secure job.

“Theresa May has made the right noises to overcome this and heal the divisions with a promise to make Britain work for all. The priority is making good on this promise.”

Professor Matthew Goodwin, author of the research at the University of Kent, said:

"This research reveals how the referendum was not simply about our relationship with the European Union, but also shed light on the deep divides that exist in our society.

"The findings of our research point to the importance of both people and place. It wasn't only that people who are struggling tended to support Brexit but also in some cases more skilled people who reside in low skilled areas. This is a crucial finding as it speaks as much to the debate about how to ensure that people have the same opportunities as it does to questions about poverty, educational inequality and disadvantage."

Read: Brexit vote explained: poverty, low skills and lack of opportunities