1. Governance
March 6, 2019

8 reasons we should stop assuming “northern” means “pro-Brexit”

By Stephen Jorgenson-Murray

Northern England is Leave-land. Everyone seems to agree on that, from Leave-supporting Labour MPs worrying that being seen as anti-Brexit will kill the party in towns like Hartlepool, through to the hardcore Remain supporters who gloated when Nissan announced cutbacks to its Sunderland factory. And on the flipside, the South – especially London – is the Remain heartland where everyone is a champagne-swilling metropolitan elitist.

Only… things can’t be that simple. Northern England is a big place – using the government’s definition of the North, it has approximately 15 million residents, representing a quarter of the UK population, and it includes five of the country’s 10 largest urban areas, as well as vast tracts of farmland and national park. Talking about the North as a big Brexit-voting monolithic entity loses all the detail and nuance.

Here are eight facts that prove it.

1) Many regions within the North were majority Remain – and many down South were majority Leave

It’s no secret that the big Northern cities saw Remain majorities. The fact Manchester and Liverpool both saw Remain pushing 60 per cent in the referendum isn’t going to blow any minds, nor will the narrower Remain leads in Leeds and Newcastle.

But South Lakeland, a very rural district in Cumbria centred on Kendal, isn’t anyone’s idea of a Remain stronghold. Nor is Harrogate – for all its wealth, this safely Tory area on the edge of Leeds has a lot in common with many parts of the Home Counties that saw chunky Leave majorities. These areas voted 53 and 51 per cent Remain, respectively.

Other places in the North where most people voted Remain include Sefton, Stockport, Trafford, the Wirral and York – and although results were never announced for these towns, demographic modelling suggests Chester, Durham, Hexham, Macclesfield and Tynemouth can join this list too.

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Travel to the other end of the country, and although there’s more Remain Yellow on the map, there’s also lots of Leave blue. Five of London’s 32 boroughs voted Leave, as did most of the districts immediately around London like Slough, Sevenoaks and Epping Forest.

Until I put these maps together, I hadn’t noticed that the Leave vote in the London Borough of Havering was actually higher than anywhere in North West England. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

2) Everywhere has large numbers of Leave and Remain voters

But what about, say, Sheffield? The fact that the city was declared for Leave was a major shock on the night, but the actual numbers are slightly less shocking: 51 per cent of Sheffield’s voters went for leave, 49 per cent went Remain. That’s an incredibly thin margin, even smaller than that of the nationwide result.

Demographic modelling suggests Sheffield Central had a Remain vote of around 69.6 per cent, putting it alongside wealthy London boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea, while Sheffield South East had a Leave vote of around 66.4 per cent, making it more Leave than Thanet, the only place with an actual UKIP council.

These very different areas sit alongside each other and largely cancelled each other out. The brain, which struggles at the best of times with comprehending hundreds of thousands of people at once, boils this down so Sheffield becomes a homogeneous Leave-supporting blob on the map.

Even in towns like Sunderland, where Leave’s victory was emphatic at 61.3 per cent, that still means that 38.7 per cent – nearly 4 in 10 – of those who voted chose Remain. That adds up to 51,930 Remain voters, enough to fill the Stadium of Light to capacity. Put them all on double-decker buses, the traffic jam would stretch 7km.


Blue is Leave, orange is Remain, pale colours are roughly even. There are a lot of pale areas. Image: Wikimedia Commons

3) The North has an awful lot of people – but not necessarily enough to stop Brexit alone

Quick question – which coastal urban area has more Remain voters: Brighton & Hove or Tees Valley?

In percentage terms, it’s an easy win for Brighton, but the raw numbers actually tilt towards Tees Valley, which has 120,000 Remainers to Brighton’s 100,000. Of course, this is because Tees Valley has a larger total population, but it still means that there’s a good chance that there are actually more Remain voters supporting Middlesbrough FC than Brighton & Hove Albion.

By the same principle, with so many millions of voters in Northern England, there are enough Remain voters (3.4 million) or Leave voters (4.3 million) to fill a city the size of Bristol several times over. There are more Northern Remain voters than it’s possible for the brain to comprehend.

Nevertheless, that means Northern England Leave’s margin of victory was just over 900,000. Nationwide it was over 1.2 million. No matter how you slice it, narrowly winning the North wouldn’t automatically have changed the result of the referendum – it would have taken even more voters either from the North, or from other parts of the UK.

4) Differences aren’t as big as percentages make it look

Imagine a speed-dating event where the residents of Newcastle (51 per cent Remain) get paired off with those from Sheffield (51 per cent Leave) solely according to their Brexit preferences. If 50 voters from each city showed up to this dystopian date night, almost all of them would be paired off, with just one Sheffield Leaver and one Newcastle Remainer single at the end. Although the cities voted in opposite directions overall, you could say the electorates of Newcastle and Sheffield are 98 per cent alike.

This scenario is a useful way to think about what voting differences mean in the real world. If you take two groups and have them mingle, how many in each group would really disagree with each other?

For a more extreme example, we can take Londoners (59.9 per cent Remain, 40.1 per cent Leave) and North Easterners (42.0 per cent Remain, 58.0 per cent Leave). Any newspaper will tell you that the difference between metropolitan London and the industrial North East is possibly the biggest divide in England and marks the two opposing camps of the culture war. And yet, of every 10 London voters who showed up to our speed-dating scenario, you’d expect 8 of them to find a partner from the North East. The great cultural divide seems less scary when you realise the sides are over 80 per cent alike.

5) Non-voters narrow the margins further

So far I’ve been careful to always refer to voters rather than just people. The EU referendum had the largest turnout of any nationwide vote for decades, but it was still only 72 per cent. In some places, it was very low indeed – Belfast West saw just 48.9 per cent turnout. And that doesn’t take into account the people who weren’t even eligible to vote in the first place, such as immigrants without the right citizenship, people who were underage at the time, and those who simply didn’t register in time.

The people of Sunderland aren’t really 61.3 per cent Leave, because turnout was just 64.8 per cent: less than 40 per cent of those eligible to vote went out and voted Leave, while 25 per cent voted Remain. The other 35 per cent of the electorate never voted at all (of course, this doesn’t mean they didn’t have an opinion on Brexit). If you include people who weren’t eligible to vote, the number gets even lower. Of the 278,000 or so people who live in the borough of Sunderland (admittedly, a figure that includes children), just 82,394 voted Leave. That’s less than 25 per cent of the population. Pick a random Mackem, and there’s a three in four chance they didn’t vote Leave.

So let’s repeat our speed-dating experiment, but include everyone who was registered to vote. Now, of every 10 Londoners that show up we’d expect about 3 Leavers, 4 Remainers and 3 non-voters, while our 10 North Easterners would typically include 4 Leavers, 3 Remainers and 3 non-voters. Nearly everyone’s going home with someone now.

6) Opinion polls show Remain gaining ground in the North

Anyway, that’s the past – what about the future? As the chances of a second referendum slowly increase, opinion polling companies have continued to ask people whether they consider Brexit a mistake, and whether they would vote Remain or Leave in a future referendum. Here’s where things get genuinely surprising.

Since November 2018, every YouGov poll that has included a regional breakdown has shown Northern England more Remain than Southern England by a significant margin (average Remain lead is 9.4 per cent in the North and just 3.4 per cent in the South). Admittedly, YouGov counts London separately from the South; but its definition still includes major Remain cities like Brighton, Bristol and Oxford.

It’s like watching Parliament vote down the deal in real time. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray, based on YouGov data.

7) Referendums don’t work like elections anyway

In the end, what does it really matter that Newcastle voted 51 per cent Remain? Nearly every Remain vote cast in the city was cancelled out by a Leave one, so Newcastle only had the tiniest effect on the nationwide total – and that was almost exactly countered by the narrow Leave vote in Sheffield. Unlike normal elections, where just a tiny vote increase can win you lots of marginal seats, there’s no prize for flipping a district in a referendum.

On the other hand, in a normal election there’s no value in increasing your vote share somewhere where you’ve already won. There’s also not much point winning voters in places where you’re really far behind. In a referendum, every vote counts. It doesn’t matter whether you live in London or Grimsby, your vote is exactly worth the same as everyone else’s. So it doesn’t matter if a majority of Sunderland voters did vote Leave – every Remain voter in Sunderland counted too.

8) In general, stereotyping is just a bad idea

Fine, there isn’t any data to back this up, but it should be self-evident. If Remain wants to win over Northerners – Leavers, non-voters and wavering Remain voters alike – it needs to treat them as individuals. It’s easy to let lazy thinking obscure this, and imagine the whole North is some monolithic racist hive-mind – just as it’s easy to imagine London is a chardonnay-scented Remain blob.

I could have pointed that the most Leave-voting districts aren’t in the North at all but the Midlands and near the South Eastern coast, but to be honest, everything in this article applies to those places too. Not everyone in the Midlands or Wales is Leave either, nor is every Scot a Remainer. Geographic stereotyping has plagued the national atmosphere for too long. If we ever want to end the toxic divisions in society, this is where we have to start.

This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.
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