On Thursday last week the British people voted to leave the EU, sending shockwaves through the British political establishment and the EU leadership. In the aftermath there is a lot of finger-pointing and blame going on, and as I predicted in a comment at Crooked Timber before it happened, people are lining up to blame Labour for what is a very Tory disaster. Here I want to talk about the limited available data on who voted what, to put paid to the idea that this was primarily (or even partly) a Labour failure. I’m then going to talk a bit about the “white working class” and the EU, and also give a brief opinion about what this means for health and the NHS. I intend to be polemical. By way of background, I have British citizenship and British parents, I’ve talked about growing up in Britain before on this blog more than once, and I really am not surprised by this result. I have only lived briefly in Britain since I was 13 – I immigrated to Australia and then worked for a year and a half in the UK on issues related to the NHS (during this period I started my blog, which is why it has the Thames as its header image). All my family still live there and I think in many ways my family present the ideal anti-EU demographic – I grew up in an environment steeped in racism and heirarchies of discrimination that I think people who grew up outside of the Tory working class, or outside of Britain, really can’t understand. This background informs my interpretation of political movements in the UK, and at its base is a simple theoretical position: for many British people, race consciousness always beats class consciousness.
The demographics of Brexit
There isn’t yet much clear data on who voted what, but we do have two data sources: the electoral returns for the local authorities, and an exit poll conducted by John Ashcroft. Let’s look first at the electoral returns, which are summarized neatly in the Guardian‘s referendum results page. In case that page dies I’ve put some screenshots of its contents here. First is the map, above, which shows clearly the regional pattern of voters: Scotland and the city centres voted remain (yellow) and the country areas voted leave (blue). For reference, the region I grew up in is the area of Wessex in the south west; I’ve magnified it below. This is the land of King Arthur and even contains a tiny separatist movement in the far south west (Cornwall). It doesn’t include Wales, which I’ve had to include a bit of in this map. The yellow (remain) areas are the cities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter and Plymouth. Outside these cities it is entirely blue. I grew up in towns like Salisbury (the furthest Eastward big blue blotch); Frome (south west of that blotch, in light blue); Falmouth (the dark blue patch west of the two small yellow ones) and Cornwall (the light blue patch poking out into the Atlantic). These are areas that benefit hugely from EU funding under the Common Agricultural Policy, were once strongholds for the Lib Dems, and are now shifting fast to UKIP. They’re heavy tourist towns with very low proportions of migrant and non-white people; unlike in London, if you go into a cafe in Torbay (where my parents live now, the dark blue patch east of Plymouth, I think) you’re likely to be served by a white local, rather than an Eastern European worker. These areas have received most of the benefits of the EU, and very few of its migrants, and have been largely isolated from previous waves of Commonwealth migration (ie Indians and Caribbean people).
These areas are old, with only three major universities in Bristol, Bath and Exeter. They’re rural and tourist-focused, and they’re also repositories of British history, holding places like Stonehenge, Avebury, and Tintagel. They’ve always been a little bit wayward and remote from the concerns of Londoners, so I suppose a bit of restive anti-EU thought makes sense here. But what about the rest of the UK? The Guardian has some graphs showing the proportion of people voting leave/remain by major socio-economic and demographic factors, which I’ve placed below.
It’s very clear what’s going on here: the more higher-educated, wealthier people, and the more people not born in the UK, the more likely the area is to vote remain (for those not steeped in British class lore, the UK office of national statistics classifies people by their social class, and “ABC1” is the professional and higher class groups). If you remove Scotland from this chart it will probably be even clearer, since Scotland’s poorer areas were more likely to vote remain. Note also that older areas were more likely to vote for leave.
It’s a classic political science error to infer individual voting patterns from area-level statistics, because it’s well-established that these statistics often go in the opposite direction at individual and regional level (Andrew Gelman famously showed this for the USA: richer states are more likely to vote Democrat, but in all states poorer people are more likely to vote Democrat). However, this pattern in this case is so clear that even though we don’t know how individuals in those areas voted, we do know that areas with higher numbers of poor and uneducated people were full of people pissed off at the EU. It’s fundamentally the job of politicians to understand these kinds of big population-level movements in politics, and for Cameron to call a referendum on this topic despite the existence of such a powerful and fundamental dynamic in the electorate is either incredibly reckless, or incredibly ignorant, or both. This stupidity is compounded by the fact that areas with large numbers of poor and uneducated people are more likely to be labour-held areas, so Cameron was going to be relying on his political enemies to support him. I don’t think Corbyn is venal or stupid, but coming hot on the heels of the era of Blair, it’s incredibly risky of Cameron to assume the leadership of the Labour party wouldn’t be venal and stupid enough not to leave him hanging on this issue for cheap political gain.
This brings us to the next issue: who actually voted how in these areas, and was the failure of the leave campaign the fault of Labour and its racist voters? For this we cannot rely on area-level data, but need to look at individuals, and sadly so far the only information we have is from John Aschcroft’s exit poll. I won’t screenshot this poll, which I linked to above, but the conclusion seems to be that this was a very Tory disaster. Here are some key figures:
- No difference in gender (52% voting leave in both)
- Young people were much more likely to vote remain (73% for 18-24 vs. 40% for the over 65s)
- Big trends by social class, with the wealthier more likely to vote remain (a similar difference between the “lowest” and “highest” social class to that in age)
- Labour, the Greens, the SNP and the Lib Dems voted heavily in favour of remain (over 2/3 for all groups) while Tory and UKIP voted for leave, so that only 20% of leave votes were drawn from Labour, vs. 40% from Tory
- 33% of leave voters listed immigration as their main concern, and 79% described themselves as English not British
The big caveat on these statistics is that the party affiiliation is based on voting in the 2015 General Election; turnout for this referendum was higher than the 2015 General Election, and so it’s likely that a lot of people who voted in this referendum did not vote in 2015 but did vote in 2010, or never vote; in this case describing them in terms of the last vote they cast may not be very informative. Nonetheless, of those who were recently involved in an election, those who voted for the tenets of the labour party were not interested in leaving. This fact is backed up by looking at the map, where the big labour heartlands in London were all for remain. The Guardian has analysis of some of these heartlands (because of course journalists immediately latch onto the meme that attacks Labour, not the obvious responsibility of all the Tory areas that voted leave). It describes a strong leave sentiment in the otherwise labour-focused area of the Thames estuary (the land of Eastenders), and a suburban revolt outside the Labour heartland areas of Merseyside and Tyneside. Tyneside is a good example: the former industrial heartland and labour stronghold north of the river voted remain, while the more suburban Tory-voting south side went with remain.
My conclusion from this is that the leave vote was driven by pensioners, the “lumpen proletariat”, and Tory voters. The remain vote was driven by labour stalwarts, the educated, and working people in the big cities and former industrial heartlands, who perhaps understand that their future depends on being part of an integrated market. Obviously this is a broad brush, and a disappointingly large number of Labour voters (about 35%) sided with leave. Some people are saying that Corbyn should have gathered these people up with a better campaign, but I think this claim is doubtful. To the extent that Labour voted leave, they’re largely rebelling against the policies of New Labour, and for Corbyn to be more involved in the remain campaign he would have had to have shared a platform with Vampire Blair and the Pig-fucker General. I don’t think this would have convinced more people to vote remain, and would likely have had the opposite effect. If the Tories wanted Labour to help drag the country back from this disaster, they were going to have to make it less of an obvious Tory shitshow, and tell the idiots from New Labour to stay home and out of the sunlight.
What about the white working class revolt?
People do like to bang on about how the average Labour voter is a racist and the only way Labour will get the “white working class” vote back is by appealing to these baser instincts, but I think this is fundamentally flawed. Yes, many working people in the UK are opposed to immigration and can express shockingly racist views, but a lot of these people were prised away from Labour back in the 1980s, and more left during the era of New Labour. I don’t think Labour will ever be able to get these people back, and it’s silly to talk about them as if they are part of the Labour heartland. The sad reality is that British politics realigned in the 1980s, at the same time as its industrial heartland hollowed out, so that the Tories have a reliable stock of poor white people voting for them on racial grounds. This is the “victory” of Thatcher-era politics and the vicious racism of the Daily Mail and the Sun. Amongst these groups, these newspapers have been pushing an anti-EU agenda for 25 years (just try reading the Daily Mail on Europe!), and also a vicious anti-Labour agenda. Of course these papers were going to do all they could to mobilize these readers against the EU in this referendum, and there’s very little the remain campaign can do against 25 years of constant anti-EU propaganda, much of which is straight up lies. This is hardly helped by the willingness of journalists to consistently let the leave campaign get away with their lies about the 350 million pounds (that Farage admitted wouldn’t go to the NHS the morning after the referendum).
It needs to be made clear too that racism was a central part of the leave campaign, and they weren’t deploying a nuanced critique of immigration. The leave campaign was doing very poorly, well behind remain, until they dug up the claims about Syrian refugees, boats on beaches, the sexual assault “nuclear bomb”, the breaking point poster and the constant terror campaign about Turkey joining the EU very soon. Once that stuff came up, leave started catching up rapidly in the polls. Then of course political geniuses like Osborne screwed up the remain campaign with their petulant threats, and the job was done. When people as unscrupulous as Boris Johnson are willing to put out the kind of misleading, deliberately untrue, and viciously racist stuff they did, there’s very little a principled campaign can do except watch the election getting stolen from them. Fundamentally you can’t win a campaign against people who happily tell juicy lies and a media that supports them.
I think a lot of commentators from both left and right in the UK fail to see how potent this stuff is because they didn’t grow up surrounded by it – they grew up in pleasant leafy neighbourhoods to professional or wealthy families, and didn’t have to put up with this stuff day-in, day-out during their childhood. If they did they would know, as I do, just how filthy and nasty the underbelly of the British polity is, and just how ugly its views are. A previous generation of Labour political leaders might have known this, but Tony Blair flayed those people and replaced them with his soulless ghouls, who know nothing except focus groups and servitude to the Elder Gods. I described this kind of politics two years ago on this blog, and this referendum is the vindication of my analysis. There are solutions to this problem, but “giving the racists the chance to shine” is not one of them.
The implications for health policy in the UK
The UK has been out-sourcing medical training and workforce development to Europe and the Commonwealth for years. Up to 26% of doctors and 11% of all NHS personnel come from overseas, a great many from the EU, and once the UK leaves the EU these EU staff will need to be replaced from elsewhere. More could be drawn in from the Commonwealth, but it’s unlikely to be able to fill the shortfall quickly because many Commonwealth countries have only small numbers of medical staff, and may not be able to provide a great deal more. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that a country that just voted to leave the EU out of fear of immigrants is going to suddenly implement policies to bring in more immigrants. The result of this will be further pressure on the NHS workforce, with even more difficulty in replacing staff as they retire and leave at a time when the aging population is putting more and more demand on health services. It takes 10 years to train a doctor and 5 years to train a nurse, but the government has been cutting funding for these training programs (including the nurses bursary) and has been repeatedly warned that it is facing a shortfall in health personnel even without leaving the EU. Pressure on universities is likely to increase with the sudden loss of EU funding, and in the huge economic readjustment that has to happen when EU funds disappear, universities are going to face major shifts in funding sources and needs. Without central organization they are unlikely to prioritize nurse training – they haven’t to date, why should we expect they will do so in the future, with tighter funds?
This problem will be even more pronounced for small and medium enterprises outside of the NHS that provide services to the NHS, and also to financial services companies. At the moment there are a range of barriers to employing non-EU staff that were put in place in response to past concerns about immigration: you have to prove the job can’t be done by a local, and it’s very hard for non-EU workers to bring in spouses. As a result most small companies don’t sponsor visa applications, preferring instead to recruit from the EU where such rules don’t apply. For financial services companies, the sudden loss of their most qualified pool of staff is going to have huge implications, and I suspect for many of them the simplest approach will be to move to Europe. The same will apply to universities, who will suddenly lose access to the best-educated region in the world. This likely won’t affect senior staff but it will have a huge impact on the supply of graduate students and early-career researchers and teachers. These jobs aren’t just boutique jobs for underwater basket-weavers – the UK has a huge pharmaceutical industry that depends on universities and research institutes, as does its high-tech industries like oil exploration services, the arms trade, aerospace, and growth industries like alternative energy. Suddenly putting up barriers to employing people from the most highly-educated part of the world is going to be really bad for high-tech industries in the UK, at a time when industries that primarily employ lower-skilled professionals (like tradespeople) are offshoring rapidly.
This is going to be an economic disaster for the UK for a very long time to come. Their only chance of a decent economic future is to implement an industrial policy, significantly improve funding to health and education, and shift from austerity to a Japan-style deficit-financed industrial society. The only person with a vision to do this – Corbyn – is about to be eaten alive by the Blairite ghouls still shambling through his own party, which will leave the political landscape ruled by Boris Johnson, who has no vision for the UK economy and is going to be so reviled by the time the UK exits that he won’t be able to make anything happen even if he had a sensible idea.
This was a political disaster that is going to leave Cameron, Osborne, Johnson and Farage the most reviled politicians in modern British history. It will likely lead to the breakup of the Union, and if it doesn’t, a return to civil war in Northern Ireland. It will also plunge the UK into a long period of economic collapse that it has no way out of, and no scapegoats for. The EU, coupled with a decent economic policy aimed at renewing British industry, was the only chance for the UK to remain globally relevant and for its citizens to enjoy a good quality of life. Cameron has wrecked that one chance in order to score a victory over the idiots in his own party, in a reckless and breathtakingly stupid political gamble. The tidal wave of economic and social problems about to hit the UK is the perfect proof that conservative politics is a wrecking-ball through modern life, and they should never ever be trusted with power.