Brexit presents us with the opportunity to transform the prospects of many who voted Leave and politicians must not squander it

Brexit presents us with the opportunity to transform the prospects of many who voted Leave and politicians must not squander it

In the days after the referendum, there was an explosion of interest in the people and places who had voted by a majority for the UK to leave the EU. Photos of towns like Hartlepool and Dudley suddenly found their way into the national news media.

Many of those places were amongst the poorest parts of the UK. The public debate has moved so quickly onto the daily dramas of courtrooms and leaked memos, that it would be easy to become distracted from the serious task of understanding and addressing the underlying drivers of the vote.

Analysis by the political scientist Matthew Goodwin for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the poorest households, with incomes of less than £20,000 per year, were much more likely to support leaving the EU than the wealthiest households, as were unemployed people, those in low-skilled and manual occupations, as well as people who feel their financial situation has worsened and those with no qualifications. It revealed a ‘double whammy’ of voters whose lack of qualifications put them at significant disadvantage in the modern economy, whilst further marginalised by the lack of opportunities in their low-skilled communities.

Of course there were votes to leave amongst all societal groups, in all parts of the UK, for a whole host of reasons. And voters don’t have an entirely distinct set of concerns just because of their incomes or where they live. But if the differences in place and status are overlooked, there is a risk that the opportunity to transform the UK for many of those who voted for change will be squandered.

So what were the factors and what can be done to address them? Opportunity, sovereignty, living standards, the impact of immigration, and wider economic and social forces all played a role. Whilst some factors behind the vote could be affected by the outcome of negotiations around Britain’s exit from the EU, others need action at a domestic level: locally, regionally or nationally. Unless there is clear political will to spread opportunity and transform prospects, leaving the EU does not guarantee the places who voted leave a brighter future.

Work is the best route out of poverty for most people, but too many places lack the economic vibrancy evident in the thriving parts of the UK. Rebalancing the economy with better jobs and boosting productivity in major industries like retail and hospitality must be a priority.

Leaving the EU creates an opportunity to design a regional policy that responds to local priorities and opportunities, and increase the chance for local areas and city regions to determine their own futures. In the meantime the government could create a Rebalancing Fund with the equivalent level of funding to that committed by the European Structural and Investment Fund.

Incomes and living standards clearly matter. Government and business have a role to play in reducing the costs of essentials (especially as inflation is predicted to rise considerably over the next few years) and improving incomes through better jobs.  The Government’s ‘just managing’ group could become much larger if rising costs are not controlled and workers enabled to move on from low paid, insecure work.

The question of immigration has taken centre stage in public debate but it is far from clear what impact, under what conditions, leaving the EU will do for immigration levels. National and local authorities need to do a much better job of planning for changes in migration, both increases and decreases.

In many cases the issues will vary according to area. The South West has areas with high levels of people struggling with fuel poverty. Coastal areas, parts of Yorkshire and the East and West Midlands have high proportions of people lacking high-level skills. Northern Towns and cities, including the areas around Liverpool, Manchester, the North East and South Yorkshire have high rates of out of work benefit receipt, and Birmingham has high unemployment.

Arguably, even more important than specific policies or measures is an understanding of both attitudes and demographics, as Goodwin’s analysis points out. It isn’t as simple as the economy, not anymore. Values played an important role in the vote, and many politicians have struggled to read the result. It is a complex interaction between individual and societal, economic and cultural forces.

If we are to make the most of the opportunity that leaving the EU presents, then politicians need to do more to understand the factors and attitudes behind the vote. Whether one voted leave or remain, it is hard to argue against the evident fact that by voting leave a spotlight was shone on the condition of many parts of the UK. This should be seen as a moment to transform the prospects of the most ‘left behind’ parts of the UK and extend prosperity to all. It is a vital test of our democracy.