TBrexit ‘Youthquake’ blindspot – why Remainers should be careful what they wish for

First things first. Let me make the obligatory declaration of creed. I am a Remainer, at least I voted Remain in the 2016 referendum on our membership of the EU, although not with a great deal of conviction.

My girlfriend is an Italian citizen and I live and work in London, where, according to many forecasts, Brexit will cause my career prospects to take a serious hit. Although so might the housing market, which might serve as ample compensation for first time buyers like me.

Clearly then, my dog in the Brexit fight is small, has very few teeth and lines up tentatively on the side of Remain. But I feel compelled to examine some of the recent attempts to deny and invalidate the result of 2016’s referendum.

Tantrums were and still are being thrown by people who define Brexit voters as being either ‘low-information’ or downright thick. Now the focus has shifted to the argument that the nation’s elderly have carelessly, or even spitefully, robbed young people of the place they expected and wanted in a brave new world that granny just wasn’t ready for.


The data to support the ‘low-intelligence’ argument was backed up by the correlation between university educated folk voting remain (68%) and people with no qualifications, or qualifications other than a degree voting leave (70% and 56% respectively).

But this interpretation assumes that those who voted one way or the other share differences in intelligence and analysis, rather than differences in values and experiences. On the contrary, it seems to me that most people in the referendum voted in concord with their peer group and values, hence the regional and class divisions the referendum exposed.

The idea that Remain voters researched and analysed the data then decided which way to vote is a mix of optimism and hubris. For most people, whatever way you voted, you did so largely on the basis of pre-existing values and self-interest.

Leave was seen by many Remain voters as the backwards, xenophobic, mono-cultural, and chauvinistic choice. While for many leave voters, Remain was seen as the decadent, establishment, pro-immigration and anti-British position.

It’s the economy. But they’re stupid. Apparently.

It’s true that economic factors also influenced people. Remain voters were more likely to believe that the economy and their own livelihood would be badly hit by leaving the EU. Whereas Leave voters believed Britain would be fine, if not better off.

The key word here being ‘believed’. In the whirlwind of figures and forecasts people made a choice of which predictions to trust, their choice being influenced in no small part by their pre-existing values.

The economic disparity in voting patterns also indicates that how you voted was influenced by how much of stake you had, or at least felt you had, in the continuation of the economic and labour market status quo.

For generations the overwhelming majority of non-university educated working classes voted Labour. As did generations of lecturers, academics and the university educated. Both the least and many of the most academic individuals frequently voted the same way. They did so because of their values, typically imbibed from their respective peer groups and of course their own perceived self-interest.

I am become pensioner, the destroyer of worlds

Now onto operation anti-Grey Dawn. The notion that older people swung it for Brexit, scuppering the prospects and the ambitions of the young. This was driven by YouGov polling after the referendum that showed 71% of 18-24 year olds who voted in the referendum voted Remain.

However, the latest polling from Ipsos MORI has now shown that the vote share for people aged under thirty-five narrows significantly when social class is taken into account. 71% of under thirty-fives in the AB and C1 categories (upper and middle classes) voted remain. Amongst the working classes (C2 and DE) this narrows to 54-56% of under thirty-fives voting Remain.

Turnout was also an issue flagged up. Initially Sky News reported that just 36% of registered 18-24 year olds actually voted in the 2016 referendum. This speculative estimate was based on turnout in the 2015 general election. Newer polling has raised this figure dramatically to 64% of 18-24 year olds and 65% of 25-39 year olds.

This shows that younger people had a greater share of the referendum vote than previously thought. It also shows that young working class people were far more likely to vote ‘Leave’ than middle class people in the same age group.

We also need to ask whether turnout was higher among young upper/middle class people than young working class people.

Ipsos MORI estimate that in the 2015 referendum the turnout for 18-34 year olds in the DE category (typically the lowest earners) was as little as 38%. For those young people in the C2 category (the next bracket up in job status and income) this rises to just 43%. This is based on the total population, rather than just those who are registered to vote. As expected, when voter registration is taken into account the turnout estimates rise, by 15% in each category.

Remainers’ blind spot

What this all shows is that young working class people were far more likely to vote leave and turned out in lower numbers than their young middle class counterparts.

And what this all means is that the icon of the nation’s young, as a voting block for Remain has a massive blind spot. It ignores the disparities of class, in what percentages they turned out to vote and in which way they cast their vote.

It would also be blinkered to assume that those young people in the socio-economic bands or regions more likely to vote Leave, have not become equally as engaged in the politics of Brexit, just as those young people more likely to vote Remain have been.

Therefore, those promising to ‘fight Brexit’ with an assumed mandate from the country’s youth, or crying out for a second referendum, flooded with a higher, younger turnout, should be careful what they wish for.


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