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Government / Local politics

Oxford vs Middlesbrough: on the urban geography of Brexit

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

Last week, I wrote – at surprisingly great length – about a map who showed Tory fortunes in Britain’s cities during last year’s elections. Short version: badly.

Medium length version: the party’s strategy was to attempt to attract Leave voters by

a) pushing for a full-fat version of Brexit, and

b) being quite rude about Remainers.

Sadly – for a certain value of sad – this seemingly alienated more affluent Remainers without doing much to attract less affluent Leavers. Aww. Here’s that map, from the Cities Outlook 2018 report, again. To its left is a map of the referendum result:

Click to expand.

You can at least see what the Tories were thinking. Those dark green dots in the left-hand map represent particularly leave-y cities, and – outside the Thames Estuary, at least – they’re by and large a litany of Labour areas. A Tory party that could win Doncaster, Middlesbrough or Hull is a Tory party that would be pretty much unassailable.

In practice, of course, it didn’t work out like that. What we actually got was a Tory party that made remarkably little progress in Doncaster or Hull, actually lost ground in Middlesbrough, and managed to place itself beyond contention in Oxford, Brighton and Exeter, so well done there.

It’s also worth noting how the referendum itself played out across the country. Those really dark green blobs – where the Leave side won 63 per cent of the vote or more, effectively a lead of at least 25per cent – are largely smaller, post-industrial cities: places where the old industrial economy has died but which, unlike Manchester or Leeds, have struggled to attract service businesses that depend on deep labour pools.


But there is an exception to this rule. It’s those smaller cities in the Thames estuary: Basildon, Southend, Chatham. There may be cultural factors at work here: Essex has long been thought fertile territory for the more jingoistic forms of Tory-ism, but that’s a culture you can also find in northern Kent (but not, strangely, northern Essex, which is much more East Anglian in tone). As I’ve written before, for all the talk of the rich South East, wages and productivity also tend to be lower to the east of London. Since the referendum was a generalised “everything is not okay” sort of a vote, economics may well have been a factor here too.

On the other side of the fence, the most Remain-y cities in England and Wales tended to be university towns, big cities, or both. Oxford, Cambridge and Brighton are the obvious examples. But elsewhere in the country, Exeter, Cardiff, Liverpool, Leeds and York are all notably more remain than the cities around them.

There are two partial exceptions to this. Neither Birmingham nor Manchester look like particularly Remain-friendly territory on this map. My guess is that’s a boundary thing: the Centre for Cities’ definition of Brum includes Wolverhampton (sorry) and a number of other contiguous suburbs, and its Manchester contains every borough in Greater Manchester except Wigan. While the cities themselves have proposed, some of their suburbs have, like so many other post-industrial areas, been left behind.

Here’s a quick chart before we go. This one plots the EU referendum result against cities; prospects for developing high-skilled private sector jobs. In other words, cities on the right of the chart are the most likely to boom, those on the left the most likely to struggle.

Click to expand.

The correlation screams at you. As the report says, the chart

shows a negative relationship between the referendum result and the share of jobs projected to grow which are high-skilled. The implication is that if patterns of job creation in the future reflect those of the past then the political divide illustrated by the referendum result will likely grow wider.

Or to put it another way: in places which voted for Brexit because their economies are rubbish, the economy is likely to get worse.

If anyone can think of any good news, please do write in. In the mean time, you can read the rest of Cities Outlook 2018 here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook.

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