Voting out of the EU: is there a regional geography?

Richard Harris, Professor of Quantitative Social Geography, University of Bristol

Richard Harris, Professor of Quantitative Social Geography, University of Bristol

The results are in and the people have spoken: by a margin of 51.9% to 48.1%, the UK has voted to leave the EU.

Throughout the night and into this morning, commentators have talked of regional differences, noting, for example, higher-than-expected votes to leave in the Midlands but also much stronger support to remain in London. The situation was described at various points as one of “London and Scotland Vs. the rest.”

Is this actually true? To some degree, yes. But it is not quite the full story.

The election results are counted by local authorities. Havering, Dudley, Cornwall, Wakefield and Doncaster are the places where the shares of the total leave votes most greatly exceed their shares of the total electorate. At the other end of the voting spectrum, Northern Ireland, Glasgow City, Edinburgh, Lambeth, Manchester and Wandsworth are the places where the shares of the leave votes are lowest in comparison to their electorate.

The local authorities can be grouped into regions and it is this that allows us to compare differences within regions (at the local authority scale) to those that are between regions, using a multilevel index of dissimilarity initially developed for modelling segregation.

What this shows is that there are very strong regional effects. What we are measuring is the difference between the shares of the leave vote obtained in each counting area, and what we would expect that share to be based on their electorate size alone. The greater variation in those differences is between regions (at 92 per cent) than within regions (at 8 per cent). What this suggests is there are very distinct regions that have attracted the leave vote and they are, in decreasing order of influence, in the West Midlands, Yorkshire and The Humber, the East Midlands and the East.

For other regions the situation is more complicated because there is no evidence that there is any statistically significant regional effect for any of the North East, South East, Wales or North West that adds to the underlying national trend of people wanting to leave.

In fact, the strongest regional effects are not for places where the shares of the leave vote are highest but for where they are least – notably Scotland, London and Northern Ireland. The starkest differences are therefore between the pro EU inclinations of Scotland, London and Northern Ireland and the anti-EU inclinations of the West Midlands, Yorkshire and The Humber, the East Midlands and the East, with other regions falling in-between.

We can also identify the local authorities that most buck the trend of their regions, having shares of leave votes that are greater than either their electoral sizes or their regional locations would predict. Those include Havering, Bexley, Sutton, Bromley, and Barking and Dagenham. At the other extreme are local authorities with shares of leave votes that are less than expected for their regions. These are Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol and Edinburgh; also Liverpool, Brighton, Cambridge, Sheffield, York and Cardiff.

This all adds up to a geography that is dominated by but not totally reducible to regional differences. The UK is certainly fragmented but the splits may not be quite as simple as they have been portrayed.

Richard Harris is a Professor of Quantitative Social Geography at the University of Bristol and Director of the Bristol Q-Step Centre

The views expressed here are personal views and do not reflect the views of the funders of our research or of PolicyBristol.

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