Clive Efford and Karen Buck on austerity

A substantial minority- especially on the political right- never accepted the 1975 referendum as a settlement. Supported by a large part of the print media, for 40 yearsBritish political life has been accustomed to seeing ‘Brussels’ and everything emanating from, or associated with Europe routinely criticised, mocked and abused. Boris Johnson’s record as aBrussels correspondent became a byword for mendacious reporting, with the sole purpose of undermining attitudes to the EU. With the passing of the World War 2 political generation, no high moral defence has been consistently made on internationalist grounds, and even the benefits of the Single Market, negotiated by Thatcher, had to be framed by intensely negative arguments about the rebate and more. ‘Up yours, Delors’ anyone?


Even the modern pro- Europeanism of 1990s/early 2000s New Labour was largely defensive in nature. No wonder, when it came to the referendum campaign, the case against wrote itself whilst pro-Europeans were left scrabbling for anything that might resonate with an electorate steeped in Euroscepticism.


We know quite a lot about the characteristics of ‘leave’ voters.Educational attainment was, according to Yougov analysis, the single factor associated with a leave or remain vote, with age a close second- 64% of over 65s voted leave- with under 25s voting remain by a the same proportion; 70% of voters with GCSE qualifications or below voted leave and 68% of graduates choosing remain. In looking at how voting patterns played out across the country, these elements can’t be ignored- but they still have to be understood in a context of place, identity and what Europe clearly came to mean in terms of explaining unhappiness with the present and a hope for a different future.


Britain has not been alone in struggling to come to terms with the cultural and social changes which have transformed the country over the last half century.We have seen long established patterns of working and civic life melt away, and the loss of the community elements of that life are acutely felt. Then there were large workplaces- factories, pits-with trade union organisations; churches, towns where most of the population worked where they lived; council housing and relatively low mobility. Now: whether in modern manufacturing, office, retain or leisure, work is certainly not-unionised, and is certainly less of a collective experience; worship has declined, commuting has increased, estates are multi-tenure and mobility usually greater. And whilst all this was happening, conglomerations- from banks and former building societies to familiar stores changed first the names on the high street and then saw many of them driven out of local communities altogether, whilst the scaling up of the public sector- away from the small District Hospital to the big regional centre, for example, may have made sense rationally, but not necessarily emotionally. If local identities felt increasingly undermined, a sense of national identity was also changing too.  The collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1989 unfroze national identificationacross eastern Europe and beyond, whilst closer to home, devolution for Scotland and Waleswas one factor encouraging a renewed impetus to the debate about a distinctly English identity.


Big cities have their stresses, of course, but their relative economic and creative dynamism offset the losses, and a second wave of urban regeneration fostered new urban pride, even if by no means everyone shared in its benefits. For far too many towns and smaller communities the change and the loss has been highly visible and wholly inadequately offset. When some saw significant arrivals from the accession countries in the second half of the last decade, it was, for some, a further sense of a familiar world slipping further and further away. Time and prosperity would have softened that, but the crash and post-crash austerity put that out of reach.


The warning signs have been there for many years and politicians failed to take heed.  They paid no attention to the growing support for UKIP among those communities that were falling behind and becoming increasingly dependent on the state for benefits, whether unemployed, or in low paid work.  Eight out of ten of the areas where workers receive the lowest wages voted leave.


Globalisation creates winners and losers and if the welfare state stops looking after the losers then they are bound to feel justified resentment towards those who have let them down, namely the political elite.  There is clear evidence of a link between those areas who have been left behind, and more recently, felt the full brunt of Tory austerity, and large majorities for voting leave.

The Gross Incomes of those with low skills fell consistently from 2001 and dropped dramatically as a consequence of Tory austerity.  The Tory’s Welfare Reform Act ushered in ten different benefit changes intended to save £18.9Bn by 2015, including the roll out of Universal Credit, Bedroom Tax and the Benefit Cap among others. The average loss of income to each working age Briton was estimated to be £440; in the City of London that figure was £177 but in Blackpool it was £914.  The average loss of income was 23.4%, in the poorest areas that rose to 46.3% and just 6% in the richest.[1]


Low income areas also rely more heavily on public services that came under siege from cuts.  Since 2010, spending on the NHS flat lined while demand grew while across the country education spend went down by 19% in real terms.  Between 2010 and 2015 Blackpool suffered over twice rate of cuts to its local council expenditure than the national average.  In the referendum it voted 68% leave while the City of London voted 75% remain. 


Professor Thiemo Fetzer of Warwick University, argues in his paper ‘Did Austerity Cause Brexit?’ that the ‘austerity shock’ tipped the balance of the referendum in favour of leave.  He highlights the fact that there was a 11.6 percentage increase in support for UKIP in elections prior to the referendum, in areas most exposed to Tory austerity.[2]


Over the last 35 years the richest one percent have more than doubled their share of incomes. People are not blind to this scale of inequality.  The reaction that things must change may not have been immediate, but the accumulated slow burn of resentment built up over many years and culminated in the most impoverished areas voting overwhelmingly for Brexit.



[1] Innes, D. and G. Tetlow (2015). Delivering Fiscal Squeeze by Cutting Local Government Spending.

[2] Professor Thiemo Fetzer of Warwick University