A great deal of research has already been conducted on why the UK voted to leave the EU and which groups of voters were most likely to back leave and remain.
A large proportion of votes to leave the EU might be understood to be a visceral reaction from those who have felt increasingly powerless as a result of globalisation, widening economic inequalities and a failure of successive UK government administrations to redistribute income and wealth more equitably for more than thirty, almost forty years. This is a reaction that it is easier to have if you are older enough to remember more equitable times, when it was possible to find a home and start a family in your twenties or early thirties and when full employment was a reality.
There are some indications of a class divide in turnout. It has become commonplace in some mainstream circles to increasingly disregard the prevalence of class in Britain today. The EU referendum, challenges this. It would be more appropriate to suggest that there is a class ceiling firmly in place. There is a highly disproportionate middle class representation among those polled, across all ages. In contrast, the working class voice is diminished.
This raises questions about two key assumptions. First, it has been assumed that a despondent working-class vote drove Britain from EU membership. Secondly, it has also been taken for granted that the young were overwhelmingly Europhile. It could be suggested that the poorest in British society simply did not turn out to vote, whilst the loudest voices in favour of EU membership amongst the young were those more affluent.
Rising inequality in voter turnout by age is not a phenomenon taking place in isolation. it is being actively facilitated by political parties who do not see the cost-benefits of formulating policies to be aimed at the young. This is the politics of short-termism, and as time as shown, short-termism only leads to disaster. Ultimately this has resulted in the collapse of voter turnout of the most important generation, the supposed ‘future’. With a percentage turnout of 54% in the 2005 general election, this is more reminiscent of the Nineteenth Century electoral system, when suffrage had not even been extended to the vast majority of adults. We appear, sadly, to be heading back to this century, not just economically but politically and democratically. It is those who are members of an elite class who are highly active and politically organised and situated in the South East, after all, they have the most to preserve from globalisation.
The Brexit vote, therefore, did not take place in a vacuum. It was open to these socio-political and economic trends, which ultimately resulted in path dependency amongst the voting age groups. It seems logical, therefore, to suggest that decades of inequality and electoral mistrust has culminated in such a cataclysmic event.
Economic inequality, which has continued to widen in the UK for the last thirty, almost forty years, is a possible driver of differentiation. Those who are better educated might perceive the EU to be beneficial to them, both in terms of opportunities in other EU nation-states as well as in relation to the availability of research funding and access to the single market which makes more well-paid jobs in the service industry available to them.
There could be a double-movement of inequality based on age. The old, remembering more prosperous and equal times during the Post-War boom, collectively express such discontent through a vote to leave. Meanwhile the young, being equally discontent with levels of inequality which buck the trend of generational improvement, express such sentiments with a lower propensity to vote, but when they voted they were much more likely to vote Remain as they did not hold the EU at fault for where they find themselves today.
Antipathy towards immigration could be explained for two reasons. First, on the basis that it is perceived to be a threat to national identity. Second, on the basis that it is perceived to be placing pressure on wages, housing and public services, as well as depleting the bargaining power of trade unions as surplus workers are available. Greater economic equality and a higher basic standard of living might have prevented a vote to leave the EU, and even if it could not, it should now become a priority. Greater inequality tends to be associated with more immigration because there are many more ‘jobs at the bottom’ in a more unequal country.
Whilst many factors will have contributed to the Brexit vote, there is some sense in the phrase follow the money. Although there is generally a stark age divide amongst voters concerning the European Union, the same can potentially be said for divides along the lines of the spread and centralisation of wealth. The EU referendum has brought deep divisions in Britain to the surface, it appears economic inequality and its accompanying despondent effects on democracy were some of those. Perhaps if the trajectory beginning in the late 1970s of a society based around capital had been reversed with wealth redistribution and investment led growth instead of austerity, the current course of history may have been different.