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Is the UK having a rethink on Brexit? It appears so

Is the UK having a rethink on Brexit? It appears so

Thiemo Fetzer (University of Warwick)

New data from a comprehensive Survation poll covering around 20,000 respondents across the whole of the UK suggest that a significant shift is underway. The large size of the poll and the sampling method used make it suitable to construct meaningful and quite precise estimates of Leave vote shares at the Local Authority level, which naturally, allows for an analysis to see in which places saw significant swings in support for Leave.  The headline figure suggests that there is now a significant majority for Remain, with Leave trailing by 8 percentage points. Yet, this headline figure hides an important geographic dimension to the UK’s change of heart. That geography is important to understand the EU referendum has been documented in a wealth of studies (see for example here, here, or here).

My analysis of the Survation poll data suggests that the UK is having a change of heart and this change of support is happening along a key characteristic: how exposed a local authority district was to austerity due to the welfare reforms since 2010. The more exposed an area was to austerity, the bigger the reduction in support for Leave as is visually plotted in the below figure. The case of Blackpool serves as a good illustration. Blackpool was the area that was estimated to be worst hit by austerity due to the welfare reforms, costing each working age adult there around GBP 900 per year. There, support for leave is estimated to have declined by a whopping 10.7 percentage points falling from 67.5% to 56.8%.



Geographically, the figure highlights which areas see the most significant swings. The more yellow an area, the larger is the estimated swing away from Leave towards Remain in the below figure on the right hand side. The left panel plots the geographic distribution of the austerity shock measure, capturing the magnitude of the financial losses due to welfare reforms since 2010 (see here for more details).  It is quite evident, that the areas that appear in reds in the left figure, see the most significant swings away from Leave towards Remain in the right panel. Focal areas are specifically Wales, Cornwall and the heart of England along with the Eastern Coastal parts of the North.



Many of these areas are traditional Labour party heartlands. Not surprisingly, as is plotted out in the below Figure, the areas most strongly switching away from Leave towards Remain are those that historically voted strongly for Labor.



Why the rethink?

In order to understand why those areas most affected by austerity (which are also the traditional Labour heartlands), see the most significant swing away from Leave towards Remain – it is important to understand, why people in these areas voted Leave in the first place. In a paper I published earlier this summer, I presented comprehensive evidence suggesting that austerity-induced welfare reforms since 2010 were an important catalyst, contributing to the built up of anti-establishment sentiment among the electorate that long felt disenfranchised from the political system. Individuals exposed to various welfare reforms, such as they are more likely to perceive “that public officials do not care”, that they are “not having a say in what the government does” and that their vote is “unlikely to make a difference”, in addition to driving support to UKIP and for Leave.

Many of these voters were not wedded to the idea of Brexit as Brexiteers have recast it since the referendum. Rather, they used the referendum to cast a vote out of protest due to years of austerity depriving local communities. Now, that more information about the cost of Brexit is emerging, many of the Brexiteer’s campaign promises and lies have been exposed as such, and some of the predicted negative economic consequences start materialize before actual Brexit date, it is not surprising to see that there is a change of heart, driven by those Leave supporters who were not wedded to the hard Brexit that most leading Brexiteers have made of it.

The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog

Thiemo Fetzer is an Associate Professor in the Economics department at the University of Warwick and a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics.