The one graph that could explain Brexit

11th July 2016 / United Kingdom

By New Economics Foundation – The causes of the referendum result are deep-rooted and complex.Economic inequality has been touted by many as the main cause, whilst others have focussed on the alienation of the white working classes.

One factor which has not been discussed much is wellbeing. Might low wellbeing explain the decisions of many to turn over the apple cart and vote to leave the EU?

We looked at data from the Annual Population Survey, which asks over 160,000 people a year a set of four wellbeing questions, including a question asking how satisfied they are with their life, using a scale of 0 to 10. Looking at the voting pattern across the country, it turns out that places with lower average wellbeing did not have a different pattern of voting, but they did have lower turnout.

As part of our work for the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, we are also exploring how to measure wellbeing inequality – how much variation in levels of wellbeing there is in a particular place  Just as looking at average income can hide important disparities in the distribution, so too can looking at average wellbeing.

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We’ve used an indicator called ‘mean pair distance’ – if you take two random people in an area, what’s the average difference between them in terms of how satisfied they are with their life? Doing so, we found that high wellbeing inequality was a strong predictor of an area voting to leave.

Differences in wellbeing inequality range from 2.4 in Blaenau Gwent in the Welsh valleys, to 1.5 in Cheshire East and Falkirk. Overall, we found that those areas such as Blaenau Gwent that had high levels of inequality overwhelming voted to leave, whereas those with low levels of inequality voted to remain. On average, in the 20 most unequal places in Britain, 57% of voters opted to leave. In the 20 most equal places, only 43% voted to leave.

We found that wellbeing inequality was associated with voting behaviour even when taking into account the percentage of residents with higher education (which has already been highlighted in the Guardian as the most important predictor of voting behaviour), and the percentage of the population that categorises itself as ‘White British’, thus controlling for ethnic diversity.

Higher local income inequality (measured using the 80:20 ratio) was not at all associated with voting to leave.

More research will be needed to explore the reasons for this relationship, but this year’s World Happiness Report argues that wellbeing inequality captures the subjective experience of inequality better than objective measures of income inequality. And it seems it is this subjective experience of inequality that has driven many people to feel dissatisfied and frustrated with seemingly distant elites.

This ties in with the shocking results of a YouGov poll a week before the referendum which showed that Leave voters have very low levels of trust for everyone from politicians to academics to sports people.

If Britain is to rebuild itself, the divisions between and within communities will need to be reduced – including those divisions that are invisible to traditional economics.

 

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