“Sanity is not statistical.” The political rhetoric in the aftermath of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom has brought us closer to Orwell’s infamous state of Airstrip One then one could have possibly envisaged. Each side of the debate twists and turns the statistics and ‘facts’ to keep supporting their argument, while neither political party has yet managed to end the political stalemate in the country, which finds itself in a state of ‘post-truth democracy‘ that it slowly entered during the pre-referendum campaigns. All sides claim what can be best explained with the German word ‘Deutungshoheit’ (a form of prerogative of interpreting the numbers behind the result as the ultimate truth). The real truth perhaps is that there is no truth, and the deeper you delve into the results, the more complexity you find. So here are some more less-talked about findings that emerge when taking a second look at the EU referendum statistics.
As mentioned in my earlier piece on mapping the referendum outcome, of all those who were allowed to vote in this referendum, 13 million people did decide not to cast their vote, which – despite the higher than currently usual turnout – is a significant number that could have made a difference in the close outcome either way. Amongst those that voted the immediate picture that emerged from the polls published after the referendum was confusing. Several polls, such as those paid for by Lord Ashcroft and used for this analysis, agreed that the older people were those who were more likely to vote for Leave, while the youngest had the largest share voting for Remain. However, when taking the total electorate into account, and considering those who – according to SkyData – chose not to vote (or spoilt their ballot), this picture became far less clear than it first seemed:
It might have been the youngest who voted overwhelmingly for Remain as a share of votes (73 per cent of those age 18 to 24), but it were also the youngest age groups who had the largest share of the electorate that decided not to vote. Among the 18 to 24 year olds 64 per cent abstained, which in turn reduces the total share of the electorate voting for Remain in that group to 26 per cent, with those who voted Leave being 10 per cent of all registered electors aged 18-24. Comparing this to the overall age distribution of the UK population it can be assumed that differences in turnout between different age groups did play a role in deciding this referendum:
Another less considered factor of the voting patterns is that of the geographical distribution of votes across the regions and countries of the United Kingdom going beyond the overall outcome shown in the cartogram that I published earlier:
When comparing how the electorate is distributed across the country to how the Remain and Leave votes, as well as to how the abstentions were distributed, there are distinct geographical differences to be seen across the UK. In contrast to surprise expressed at the time over its Leave majority, Wales is actually the least unusual part of the UK, with its shares of Remain, Leave and No Vote being almost equal to the total UK shares. The South East, in contrast, has a much lower proportion of No Votes than its share of the electorate would predict if there were no geographical influences while at the same time having above average shares of Remain as well as Leave Votes. At the other extreme, disproportionate shares of the electorate chose to not vote in the strongholds of Remain, in London and Scotland. Had turnout in London and Scotland been nearer the UK average, this story would be very different:
The vote in June’s EU referendum will be a divisive element in the United Kingdom’s politics for years to come. A closer look at the voting patterns is essential to make more sense of the implications and the underlying divisions in society that need addressing and understanding if we are to know the likely future route of politics in the country. Was it complacency among life’s winners, and in those areas where it was most assumed that Remain would prevail that led to this outcome? Not so much a protest vote as a lack of voting in London, in Scotland and among the young, among those not given a vote at ages 16 and 17, and among those who had the most interest of all in the outcome: the citizens of Europe who lived in the UK but were not born in the UK and who had assumed that this would not matter in what, until 2016, was slowly becoming an ever closer union.
This analysis was done as part of a contribution for Political Insight and is going to be published in full in the second issue of 2016 (published in September).