Brexit: Why did Wales vote Leave?

(Title Image: Independent)

Last Thursday’s decision to leave the European Union is a 9 on the Richter scale“political earthquake” that will change the course of European history in a manner that hasn’t been seen since the Second World War or the end of Communism.

If people wanted to send a message they certainly did so. The rudderless Disunited Kingdom is in the most serious constitutional crisis of modern times. It’s also right to say that life goes on and people will go about their business as usual, but eventually these things trickle down into everyday living.

This is the first of three posts over the coming days looking at the impact of Brexit on Wales and the UK. This will include the National Assembly’s reaction tomorrow and a detailed look at how Brexit might affect Wales on Wednesday. Today, I give my own views on why the Welsh electorate joined the English regions outside London in backing Leave.

The Result Itself

First off, the result in Wales was closer than any other part of the UK except South East England; if about 42,000 people voted the other way, Remain would’ve won in Wales. The Welsh result was a far from overwhelming one for Leave, but it was clearly enough to secure victory and you can argue that Wales is now the most divided part of the UK on the issue.

Wales has a number of demographic and socio-political characteristics that helped Leave :

  • Wales is older – About 38% of the population is aged over 50 (~35% UK), and according to after-polling surveys these people were far more likely to turn out (aided by the good weather last Thursday) and far more likely to vote Leave. This was largely expected.
  • Up to 15%+ of the Welsh population identifies as English – English national identity is another correlating factor with voting for Leave (as opposed to Britishness). This is particularly evident along the north Wales coast and those parts of Wales with higher levels of English identity in the 2011 census voted Leave (with the exception of Monmouthshire). Scotland and Northern Ireland are more self-contained.
  • Wales has a higher proportion of lower-middle and working class people (C2DEs) – This explains why the Valleys voted the way they did, in line with other post-industrial areas in England. Traditionally, these are Labour supporters and areas with high levels of Labour support in Wales voted Leave – a pattern replicated in parts of England too. They might’ve been convinced by Vote Leave’s lie about extra NHS spending. With the Scottish equivalents switching to the pro-EU SNP and the people in Northern Ireland sharing a land border with another EU state, their vote was dislocated from what was happening in EnglandandWales.
  • Wales has more people with lower-level or no qualifications than degree-holders – The number of Welsh people holding, or studying for, degrees isn’t that much different from the rest of the UK. However, outside Cardiff and the M4 corridor, many don’t stay here and will move to where the jobs are, particularly London and maybe Bristol too. The factor that correlates best with voting to Leave was lower levels of education, and local authorities with high levels of people with lower qualifications voted Leave, while those with high proportions of degree-holders or students (as a % of the resident population) – like Cardiff, Gwynedd, Monmouthshire, Ceredigion etc. – voted Remain.

EU Structural Funds: Inflexible, Invisible, Wasted

This is the issue that will baffle people living outside Wales the most: Wales was a net-beneficiary from the EU by between £180-245million a year, yet we still voted Out. Now our government and local authorities are pleading to ensure a similar amount of money (as are Cornwall and Yorkshire) comes from what’s likely to become the most right-wing government in modern UK history. “Cheeky buggers.”

First off, the EU funding was inflexible. West Wales & the Valleys (WWTV) was created as an artificially poor region to ensure it was eligible for EU structural funding/Objective One in the first place. EU structural funds could only be spent in this region, a region that’s an economic desert, hit by a double whammy of rural sparcity and post-industrialisation. Also, in the valleys, many people commute to Cardiff or the M4 corridor where the wealth is generated – so it’s no surprise GVA levels remain low in their home local authorities. EU rules are incredibly strict on how this money could be spent and it simply hasn’t worked to bridge the economic gap – which brings me to my second point.

EU funding was “invisible”. Universities have been the main beneficiary under the guise of economic competitiveness and research and development. As Wales has long lacked high-value jobs this makes some economic sense – demonstrated by EU investment in the new engineering-based Swansea University campus, which is expected to significantly boost the economy of the Swansea Bay area. The trouble is the many people who voted Leave didn’t “see” any of this; they don’t benefit from it and it doesn’t bring any jobs to them. It’s not as if ex-factory workers and early school leavers in places like Resolven, Ebbw Vale or Treherbert are suddenly going to find themselves working towards a doctorate in materials science.

Finally, there’s the inescapable fact that EU funds have been wasted in Wales. As mentioned, the rules are strict – the money can only be spent on certain things in certain areas and it has to be match-funded by the Welsh Government or local authorities. The Republic of Ireland has spent EU funding on infrastructure and now has an enviable road network; successive Welsh governments have chosen to spend it on local regeneration and “improving socio-economic prospects”. The money has been spread far too thinly to please as many communities and organisations as possible, fuelling “pork barrel politics” – a long-standing policy error in Wales.

Although some key infrastructure projects have come about as a result of EU funds – the Port Talbot distributor road, A465 dualling and possibly the South Wales Metro (though that’ll be in doubt now) – elsewhere, it’s been spent on things like town centre streetworks and various social “projects” led by Labour’s Third Sector client state; a stereotypical example would be EU funds subsidising childcare to encourage unemployed parents to attend EU-funded training schemes to improve their chances of getting a job….jobs that either don’t exist or are low paid, temporary or insecure. There’ve been too many organisations and too many schemes each fighting for their own small slice of EU cash, and Welsh Labour have indulged them.

These projects have funded apprenticeships and qualifications, but very few have created full-time jobs for the people they’re supposed to help or, in the case of Jobs Growth Wales, have simply filled low-paid jobs that were going to be created anyway. As the economy continued to struggle in WWTV, and jobs lost from heavy industry were replaced by training places and EU-funded middle managers of Welsh Government “schemes”, it’s absolutely no surprise that many people feel as though the EU has done nothing tangible for them except make the pavement in declining town centres a bit nicer or paid for them to attend a  course for a couple of months.

The Impact of Immigration

Although the number of immigrants, as a proportion of the population in Wales, is small, they’re concentrated in a few areas.

Merthyr Tydfil’s immigrant population rose 227% between 2001-2011 (Leave vote 56.4%), while there are sizable eastern European communities in Carmarthenshire (Leave vote 53.7%), Bridgend (Leave vote 54.6%) and Wrexham (Leave vote 59%).

Nevertheless, it’s true to point out that areas with low numbers of immigrants voted Leave (ironically); Cardiff has by far and away the largest proportion of immigrants in Wales and voted Remain.

As for why, the Welsh might have once had a reputation for socialist rabble-rousing and contrarianism, but that’s been replaced with a small-c conservatism as the economy went into the toilet in large swathes of the country and the population began to age, sicken and retire (sometime forcibly early).

These areas and residents are perhaps more comfortable with “keeping things as they are” as they’re so used to losing everything – when they have nothing economically and very little political power, the only thing left is community. They see people walking around their declining town centres speaking different languages and raising children speaking different languages or undercutting them at work in such a short space of time and react to it.

I doubt I have to go back very far in my family tree to find relatives who’ve been on the receiving end of anti-migrant bigotry; the Irish weren’t made particularly welcome in the Valleys after the famine diaspora and you can look up the number of anti-Irish riots in Wales for yourselves.

It’s certainly not bigoted to be worried about the pressure uncontrolled migration might put on local services – in fact it’s a perfectly reasonable concern. The trouble is those concerns have been dismissed as bigotry or racism and there’s never been a proper response from politicians to those concerns, so the arguments get nastier and the claims get wilder.

What’s not reasonable are assumptions immigrants get a better deal. Most of them will speak several languages, the vast majority of them work in either tough, mainly low-paid, jobs or in professional services where there are skill shortages. They’ll be more driven than locals just by coming here, which takes a tremendous amount of effort – so there might be an element of jealousy or inadequacy in anti-immigration feeling. However, like any big population change, these things have to be planned for and EU expansion hasn’t been.

The saddest thing in all this is that it’s clear many locals think people who’ve come here from abroad to work, live and raise a family aren’t a part of their communities, when they’re just trying to get by like the rest of us.

I doubt I’m the only person seriously worried about who the scapegoats are going to be once the EU and immigrants can’t be blamed anymore. The answer is it’ll probably be single mothers, trade unionists and people on welfare – like the good old days. If it wasn’t so serious, it would be funny that the South Wales Valleys voted for that.

Post-Industrial Disillusionment

Representative democracy is based on trust, and as politics has become increasingly professionalised and the bubbles in Westminster and Cardiff Bay more exclusive, many politicians don’t understand how their constituents live day-to-day – they might knock doors or hold surgeries but that’s not the same as they’ll never experience it themselves.

Having said that, I’ve experienced things like long-term unemployment, underemployment, growing up in a rough neighbourhood (I live in a Communities First designated area) and looking after disabled family members – I still voted Remain. The difference is, as pointed out earlier, I’m relatively well-educated and follow these things closely.

Politicians are now expected to lie or go back on their promises and, as we’ve seen with the spread of things like conspiracy theories, anti-vaccination and the “memeification” of politics online, the credibility and standing of “experts”and their competence has been undermined. The one time they get things wrong – like economists who didn’t predict the 2007-08 economic crisis – wipes out the 99 times they get things right in many people’s minds. Anti-intellectualism and populism always precedes a radical political shift – it happened in Communist countries, it happened with fascism. It happened last Thursday in the UK; it could happen with Donald Trump in the US.

Politics is a very complicated business and the majority of people will naturally seek the simplest answer to big questions when politicians and experts are unable to speak at their level without being patronising. These are people – or even a whole country in the form of Wales – who’ve been thrown on the scrapheap as power is concentrated with a smaller number of people in smaller parts of the UK.

In Scotland, by contrast these groups have been properly engaged and energised as a result of the 2014 independence referendum, which has offered them real hope and brought forward a new generation of competent leaders the “left behind” can believe in – Nicola Sturgeon is de facto leader of the UK at the moment. Northern Ireland has always been insulated from politics in Great Britain.

Wales on the other hand has had more of the same year after year after year and, like England, turned to UKIP instead of “our SNP”,  Plaid Cymru.

“Take Back Control”
– which will probably go down as one of the most effective political slogans in history – is exactly the sort of thing you tell people who feel powerless in order to get them to vote for your position. The problem is, who have they given “control” to?

The Referendum “Campaign” in Wales

It’s probably right to say that people in Wales were more exposed to the Leave campaign and its messages than Remain – mainly due to the media situation, which I’ll return to later. Leave campaigners were far more enthusiastic and got their act and message together long before Remain were out of the blocks.

From my perspective there wasn’t a campaign. Aside from following the matter online,  I received the only Remain literature last Wednesday – the day before the vote. With claims and counter claims going back and forth I had to do most of the research myself.

One of the main complaints I think we’ll hear from AMs is that the referendum was called too close to the Assembly election. Considering the party machinery in Wales simply doesn’t have the membership or resources as UK parties – despite claims of membership surges and strong teams –  this is a valid reason, but not necessarily an excuse. There was nothing stopping AMs becoming more involved in the campaign, or preventing the First Minister going out and about in the same manner as he did during the election. When he did, it was too little too late.

Of course, campaigning on this scale isn’t as simple as going around posting leaflets or holding up banners and placards. It takes money, careful planning and co-ordination of people to be in the right place at the right time – all of which was spent during the Assembly election; many AMs probably will have been exhausted with their heads on holiday.

The planning and organisation behind the Assembly election would’ve taken months in its own right, but after the election, the Welsh parties only had a few weeks to cobble something together – not helped by the distractions and turmoil in the Senedd itself following the First Minister vote stunt. That extra week of EU campaigning taken up by the tiff between Labour and Plaid could’ve made a difference.

Labour failed to, not necessarily get their vote out (they turned out in droves), but convince them EU membership was right. Plaid did too to a lesser extent, while the Lib Dems were probably still in shell shock.

In any other circumstances that would’ve been reason enough for Carwyn Jones to resign as First Minister, but considering the utter chaos in Westminster at the moment, the last thing we need in Wales is another power vacuum because we’re going to get absolutely battered by this decision and need some sort of response to it.

SNP supporters were always nailed on support EU membership along with Scottish Labour etc. while Northern Ireland has unique circumstances because of the border.

It would be unfair to say that the Welsh parties, and even local councillors who support EU membership, have let Wales down, but the lack of party mobilisation or internal focus on the referendum certainly helped Leave. Had Labour and Plaid run a full campaign with full resources some of the results might’ve gone the other way. I only caught some of the sole Welsh TV debate – and didn’t write it up to spare everyone’s blushes – but it was an absolute car crash and it was at that moment I realised Leave was probably going to win, hours after I predicted a close Remain win.

The Impact of the Media

The elephant in the room. The biggest campaigners in Wales were from the Leave side: Daily Mail, The Sun, Express, Daily Star. The Western Mail, our only “national paper”, came out for Remain but has a readership under 20,000 a day, and an online site that prioritises restaurant reviews and the best places to take a dump. I tried to give as balanced coverage as possible, but if people don’t share that or read it it’s useless.

Scotland has its own media, Northern Ireland has its own media, there’s a significant London-only media too – each one will have offered a message on the referendum tailored to their audiences. Wales doesn’t have any of these things aside from the BBC, ITV Wales news reports, S4C and a handful of poorly-selling regional/local papers….and blogs.

It’s more likely that people in Wales know more about immigrants and refugees “flooding” into south east and eastern England than any EU-backed project on their own doorstep, or what the EU has meant for trade to and from Wales, or even what the EU means for the steel crisis.

If you convince people in Wales that primarily English problems are affecting them, they’ll vote in an English way and that’s been a trend that’s been happening for a while now. I can only see it getting worse.