The UK and Europe

Explaining Brexit: what an analysis of place tells us

Stephen Clarke / Jul 2016

Photo: Shutterstock


A lot has happened since 23 June: high-profile resignations, jitters in financial markets and last week a new Prime Minister. In some respects Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, while hanging over all of these events, has been superseded by them. Nevertheless, as the new Prime Minister looks to take the country forward and tackle the sources of discontent that the vote exposed, it is important to understand what really happened.

New Resolution Foundation analysis tries to disentangle the key drivers of the leave vote using data on the characteristics of people living in 378 of Britain’s 380 local authorities. By testing the strength of the relationship between each of these factors and the leave vote, while holding all other factors constant and controlling for specific regional effects, we’re able to explain around 90 per cent of the variation in the leave vote across different areas within Britain.


Six key drivers emerge:

First, living standards matter. Reflecting on the results three weeks ago, we noted that recent changes in living standards hadn’t played much of a role, but that deeper-rooted economic differences did. That finding is confirmed in our more detailed investigation, with employment levels proving an important predictor of an areas leave vote. A 10 percentage point (ppt) rise in the employment rate within a local authority is associated with a 1.7ppt fall in the leave vote.

Second, education matters. A lot. A 10ppt increase in the proportion of people with degrees (more technically, with qualifications at NVQ4 and above) is associated with a 4.5ppt fall in the leave vote. In our analysis education was the strongest predictor of how an area voted, reflecting the fact that it is closely related to pay, employment, and feelings of cohesion – bringing together both economic and cultural explanations for how areas voted.

Third, demographics matter. A 10ppt rise in the proportion of students within the population is associated with a 5ppt fall in the leave vote. The same increase in the ratio of over-50s to under-50s is associated with a 0.7ppt increase in the leave vote. This chimes with what we know about how people of different ages voted and the widespread support for Remain among students.

Fourth, migration matters, but only in areas where the migrant population has grown rapidly. That is, while the overall migrant share of the population in a given area does not have a significant effect on the leave vote, the pace of change in the decade after 2004 does. Increasing the proportion of migrants in the population by 10ppt raises the leave vote by 3.9ppt.

Fifth, culture and cohesion play an important role. Chiming with the findings from Lord Ashcroft on the importance of attitudes at the individual level in explaining the vote, we find that a 10ppt increase in the proportion of people who believe that individuals from different backgrounds ‘get on well’ in their area is associated with a 3.9ppt decrease in the leave vote.

Finally, politics and wider geographical factors also matter. Local authorities in Scotland recorded leave votes that were 12ppts lower than the English average, even once all of the factors above were taken into account. In contrast, we found no specific ‘London effect’ when holding all these other factors constant.

While our analysis tries to include all possible factors that may have affected the vote (we tested many others and dropped them where there was no apparent correlation), not everything of importance can be measured at a local level. It’s also worth noting that this is an investigation of place, not people.

What is most striking about these results is the range of factors that had an effect. Yes, economic matters – there is evidence that areas that have been left behind were more likely to vote to leave – but demographics and culture play an important part as well. This is significant because it suggests that simply focusing on one factor will not address the various sources of discontent.

Theresa May in her inaugural speech as Prime Minister seemed to appreciate this. Her commitment to tackle “burning injustices” and make Britain “a country that works for everyone”, if fulfilled, has the potential to tackle some of the sources of discontent. In some respects the success of her premiership rests on her ability to deliver on the referendum vote, however it is just as important to address the deeper-rooted issues that the vote exposed.



Stephen Clarke

Stephen Clarke

July 2016

About this author ︎►

Related content