Excluding London, northerners were more likely to be Remainers than southerners. So why are anti-Brexit voices from the north so often absent from the national debate?by Rik Worth / October 15, 2019 / Leave a comment
As the climactic third act of Brexit approaches with a potential second referendum, one persistent narrative remains: the north of England being dominated by backwards, Leave-supporting xenophobes. This myth manifests not only in the form of endless vox pops exploring why so many northern voters backed Leave—making “leave voter” and “norther” almost interchangeable—but also through earnest sympathy for the plight of the north, talk of northerners as turkeys voting for Christmas, and conversely depictions of Remainers as a homogenous (southern) metropolitan elite who don’t understand anything or anyone beyond the Watford Gap.
The number of leave voters in London—1.5 million—is more than five times higher than the entire population of Sunderland, 277,247, and yet it’s Mackems, not cockneys, who are approached by news presenters on the street. They are the ones depicted as authentic, “average” Britons, while at the same time being dismissed as economically short-sighted, backwards and regressive.
This idea is, it should go without saying, grossly oversimplified. Back in March of this year, statistical analysis for CityMetric demonstrated the North/South Brexit divide was not as great as we might assume. Many southern councils outside London supporting Leave while Northern cities backed Remain. Excluding London, northerners were more likely to be Remainers than southerners—and the difference in support for Remain between the north and London is only 1 per cent.
Even at this late juncture, there is a healthy movement of Remain-supporting groups—from Merseyside to Tyneside, and everywhere in between—still fighting the myth of a north responsible for Brexit.
Martin Brookes is chair of York for Europe and member of the Yorkshire Remain Voice Choir. For him, the issue is a classic case of people imagining stronger divides than really exist. “Imaginary maps became lodged in people’s minds with arbitrary lines drawn across England,” Brookes says.
In the North West, Manchester for Europe (Mcr4EU) campaigns on the basis that there was a disparity in 2016 not between north and south, but between city and town. Most northern cities are multicultural, have at least one university and voted to Remain. The idea of a northern Leave story was built not on metropolitan areas, but on surrounding areas.
Mcr4EU, then, opted to try and change the towns. Members looked to places like Oldham, which has low economic levels, voted Leave by nearly 61 per cent and which—according to its own council’s findings—is highly likely to suffer from “economic shock” post-Brexit, including suffering food and energy poverty, as well as employment stagnation. If they could change Oldham’s opinion, they reasoned, it might start to change the nation’s opinion.
One member told Prospect, “I would say probably our biggest problem, especially out in areas like Oldham, was apathy—at least to start with. We struggled to get engagement with passers-by at our street stalls and nobody wanted to talk.”
“As the [Brexit] crisis deepened,” however, “this was partially overcome.”
This difficulty was seen across the north-west and likely further. Jo Callaghan, a member of Weaver Vale for Europe, campaigning in the Chester constituency which voted Leave by 50.68 to 49.32 per cent, blames the entrenched language surrounding Brexit.
“It would be desirable to change the narrative but with the BBC continuing to skew the debate and the populist press and politicians using terms like ‘Remainer vermin’ and ‘liberal elite’ it is going to be difficult,” he says.
Battling against rigid and emotive language is a struggle—but, as polling shows it might shift these nominal Leave victories in the event of a second referendum, campaigners consider it worth it.
Even so, the northern stereotype could persist; and Callaghan was not alone in this assessment of the press’s language.
According to Dr Olivier Sykes of Liverpool for Europe, the problem is that this imagined idea of the North is entrenched across the political spectrum—resonating as much with left-wing members of the working class as with people on the right. In this narrative, Leave isn’t the result of the north being xenophobic or anti-immigrant—it’s that they’re trying to teach Westminster, and the Tories, a lesson.
“Basically, the idea that people in the north have ‘rejected the system’ by voting Leave chimes well with that tendency on the left to think the world is a bad place and that collapse and rupture must come before the positive change.”
At the same time, Sykes adds, “the reproduction of this idea serves the proponents of the Leave cause. They can use it to ‘get behind’ the arguments of the left and say to the north ‘look, we are the ones who care about you now, Labour has abandoned you’.”
It’s an interesting theory for why this message is so widely pervasive and so infrequently challenged.
Many northern Remain group members directly referenced Labour, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit position, as being an issue in changing this narrative. There is a feeling left-wing politics and the Labour party are tied up in the identity of the north—by extension, a clearer, more substantial resistance to Brexit, which represents the region more accurately, would be a fairer stance for the party to take.
Louise Houghton, Chair of South and West Yorkshire for Europe told Prospect, “In Barnsley and Wakefield the main obstacle to overcome is the lack of clear direction from the Labour Party. Leave voters here believed the rhetoric of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘taking back control’ and believe that the EU is responsible for austerity and their genuine grievances.
“If Labour had actively led this debate, to highlight the truth, then we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Yet while Corbyn’s stance may have failed to connect with northern Remainers for any number of reasons, Boris Johnson’s cynical “northern strategy” to utilise an apparently anti-Labour, anti-EU north has also backfired. Houghton adds that “thankfully, it seems like every move Johnson-Cummings makes is a misstep. They woefully underestimate the north.”
If both of the main parties struggle to speak to Northern Remainers, then pro-EU campaigning groups also struggle to get their voices heard on the national stage. Visibility of a northern Remainers, however, is key to altering the message of Brexit is the north’s fault. (As one source simply put it: “Get northerners fronting the Remain campaign.”)
Brookes’ York group has had some success with visibility, appearing on television and radio news and during visits to Westminster has acted as a central group for other Remainers to rally around. Yet while they are not the only vocal northern face of Remain battling what he calls the “all-pervasive, accepted wisdom” of north v south, the broader story is hard to change.
For Adam Parkinson of Mcr4EU, the solution to the north/south Brexit divide narrative can only be solved by addressing the “fundamental north versus south” problem. For him, the economic, transport and educational investment the south gets compared to the north will always allow the latter to be painted with a broad brush.
Brexit is therefore just the latest way in which the government’s lack of northern investment is being spun as outside politicians’ control, with the people affected turned into stereotypes to justify lazy policies.
This north-south divide isn’t just a Brexit matter, then. It’s a familiar and lazy narrative that certain politicians and sections of the media use to ignore systemic inequality: a clumsy tool at once encapsulating and obfuscating the problems of English society under the banner of us versus them.
As Parkinson says, “The policy choices created economic division between north and south, and the deflection of responsibility has created hatred between ‘southern elites’ and ‘stupid northerners.’”
“This narrative has been grabbed by elements of the far-right in politics and the media,” he adds. “In seeing Brexit slipping away, they are fanning the flames of this hatred.”