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With Brexit, It’s the Geography, Stupid

Pundits analyzing Britain’s Leave vote obsess over everything but what mattered: decades of economic decay in declining regions.

A backstreet in Burnley, England. Alexander P. Kapp / Wikimedia.

One of the major irritations of public discourse after the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote has been the complete poverty of analysis on the reasons behind different demographics’ voting preferences. Endless time, energy, and media attention has been afforded to squabbling over the spending of each campaign for and against continued European Union membership — and now more on the role social media played in influencing the vote — mirroring the arguments in the United States that those who voted to Leave were, like Trump voters, unduly influenced by shady political actors, with little transparency behind political ads and social media tactics.

It’s a handy distraction from the root causes in the UK: widening inequality, but also an increasingly entrenched economic system that is geographically specific, meaning your place of birth and rearing has far more influence over how limited your life is than anything within your control: work, education and life choices.

Across Britain, territorial injustice is growing: for decades, London has boomed in comparison to the rest of the country, with more and more wealth being sucked towards the southeast and other regions being starved of resources, jobs and infrastructure as a result. A lack of secure and well-remunerated work doesn’t just determine whether you can get by each month without relying on social security to make ends meet, but also all aspects of your health, and the health of your children. A recent report by researchers at Cambridge University examined the disproportionate effect of central government cuts on local authorities and services: inner city areas with high rates of poverty, and former industrial areas were hardest hit. Mia Gray, one of the authors of the Cambridge report said: “Ever since vast sums of public money were used to bail out the banks a decade ago, the British people have been told that there is no other choice but austerity imposed at a fierce and relentless rate. We are now seeing austerity policies turn into a downward spiral of disinvestment in certain people and places. This could affect the life chances of entire generations born in the wrong part of the country.”

Life expectancy is perhaps the starkest example. In many other rich countries, life expectancy continues to grow. In the United Kingdom it is not only stalling, but in certain regions falling. The gap between the north and south of England reveals the starkest gap in deaths among young people: in 2015, 29.3 percent more 25-34-year-olds died in the north of England than the south. For those aged 35-44, the number of deaths in the north was 50 percent higher than the south.

In areas left behind economically, such as the ex-mining towns in the Welsh valleys, the post-industrial north of England, and former seaside holiday destinations that have been abandoned as people plump for cheap European breaks, doctors informally describe the myriad tangle of health, social and economic problems besieging people as “Shit Life Syndrome”. The term, brought to public attention by the Financial Times, sounds flippant, but it attempts to tease out the cumulative impact of strict and diminished life chances, poor health worsened by economic circumstances, and the effects of low paid work and unemployment on mental health, and lifestyle issues such as smoking, heavy drinking, and lack of exercise, factors worsened by a lack of agency in the lives of people in the most deprived areas. Similar to “deaths of despair” in the United States, Shit Life Syndrome leads to stark upticks in avoidable deaths due to suicide, accidents, and overdoses: several former classmates who remained in the depressed Welsh city I grew up in have taken their own lives, overdosed, or died as a result of accidents caused by alcohol or drugs. Their lives prior to death were predictably unhappy, but the opportunity to turn things around simply didn’t exist. To move away, you need money and therefore a job. The only vacancies that appear pay minimum wage, and usually you’re turned away without interview.

Simply put, it’s a waste of lives on an industrial scale, but few people notice or care. One of the effects of austerity is the death of public spaces people can gather without being forced to spend money. Youth clubs no longer exist, and public health officials blame their demise on the rise in teenagers becoming involved in gangs and drug dealing in inner cities. Libraries are closing at a rate of knots, despite the government requiring all benefits claims to be submitted via computers. More and more public spaces and playgrounds are being sold off to land-hungry developers, forcing more and more people to shoulder their misery alone, depriving them of spaces and opportunities to meet people and socialise. Shame is key in perpetuating the sense that poverty is deserved, but isolation and loneliness help exacerbate the self-hatred that stops you fighting back against your circumstances.

That isolation traditionally translates to voting patterns: the strongest determinant in electoral turnout across the UK is age, with wealth shortly behind. But the referendum on EU membership shifted the dynamics somewhat: in most of these areas, people lived in “safe seats” — the kind where a stuffed effigy with the right party label would get elected. For decades, the “parachuting” of candidates into these areas, often Labour but sometimes Conservative, with no local connection, has irked voters, but not translated to a full swing to another party, thanks to the first-past-the-post system. The referendum treated votes differently: each vote counted, but was also removed from party politics. Both Labour and the Conservatives campaigned to remain in the EU and failed entirely to explain why membership might be beneficial to those waiting to cast their vote.

For decades, many people across the north of England, south Wales and parts of Scotland have seen more and more wealth drawn as if by magnets towards London. Headlines might claim employment is at a high and the economy is in recovery, but very few people feel that even in the south-east: people in the poorest areas see their high streets boarded up, their friends unemployed, or if they’re lucky, employed on zero-hours contracts with few if any rights. Many older, affluent Conservatives voted to leave the EU for all the reasons trotted out by the most ardent Conservative figureheads, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove, and Boris Johnson. But a huge number of people had simply had enough of an entirely rigged economic system that is happy to see their local area collapse into ruin and year after year have all public services winnowed away. My hometown voted Leave, as did most areas surrounding it in Wales: this wasn’t remotely a surprise given that for decades the areas had seen no improvement, and they were treated purely as electoral fodder to boost the number of MPs in Parliament to reach a working majority.

Asking people to vote for the status quo is always a risky move, never more so than when the status quo has entirely failed people. The obsessive focus on whether hidden funding or Russian troll farms influenced the referendum result shows how little the political and media class still care about the reasons behind the vote. Geography tells you a lot, especially when mapped against austerity. Talking to people tells you even more, listening to the frustration of people who are all too aware their life chances are diminished by virtue of their family and economic background, and the place they were born. Ignoring the level of anger felt at our inequitable economic geography lost Ed Miliband’s Labour party the 2015 general election, and allowed the country to grow ever more polarised. Targeting funding in the poorest areas, rather than forcing them to shoulder the deepest cuts, and implementing local economic plans to kickstart services and keep expenditure within the local community and economy is perhaps the only way to prevent the UK increasingly resembling the polarization of the US.