Explanation at the margins

Large scale historical events often have deep causes, but useful explanations may also be at the margins. A decent account of the origins of the First World War might well talk about the alliance system, the nature pre 1914 European diplomacy, or the expectation of conflict, but it might also talk about the particulars of Serbian domestic politics, or even the implications of train logistics on Russian mobilisation. Elections are no exception, and analysis of Brexit has become an become an industry.

Given the closeness of the result, and its immediate significance for political parties and campaigners, it makes sense that a large amount of time and attention will be given to marginal changes. In a split that is 52% to 48%, any number of small factors can be seen to have determined the result. But there is one factor that has received particular attention: leave voting Labour voters in the North of England.

This is totally fair enough as a causal explanation. It is a quasi-necessary condition of the victory for Leave, and of course of particular interest to both the Labour and Conservative parties, given that this group has been regarded, perhaps incorrectly, as now a swing group. It is also a valid enough focus for stressing as a causal factor, as it was (to some) in violation of expectations. The problem is when this is conflated with an account of the general character of the leave vote. About 23% (a large chunk, but not the largest) of the Leave vote came from the North of England, and a much smaller group northern labour voters. The largest group of leave voters were Conservative and from the south.

Why has this conflation become so widespread? I think there are a number of reasons why this would occur. For the Conservative party and press, this narrative acts as a means of legitimising the vote. The stereotype lends itself to the idea of the authentic, ordinary person. This is probably what is meant as much by the ‘will of the people’ as a numerical majority (socially conservative politicians talked up the authenticity of this stereotype long before they had grounds to claim it represented a numerical majority). For Labour, it is partly about worrying about losing certain core constituencies, but also partly a tendency on the left to view destabilising events with mass support as driven by the working class.

This conflation is important to recognise, as it can lead to significant misunderstandings of recent events. It can also blind people to important new developments, in particular, that Labour supporters in the North have shown a significant swing away from supporting Brexit.

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