Birmingham and the “Phoney” Brexit Negotiations: A Divided City

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With ongoing negotiations over triggering Article 50, City-REDI’s Prof. John Bryson – using Birmingham as a case study – reflects on a divided Brexit Britain. This piece was written for LBC – Britain’s leading commercial news talk station – following their commissioning of a YouGov poll to gain insight into voter attitudes in the months since the UK voted to leave the EU.

The EU referendum was held on Thursday 23 June 2016 to obtain citizen reactions regarding whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union. It is worth noting that the referendum is advisory with the final decision resting with the currently elected Government. The national outcome was that Leave won by 52% compared to 48% who wanted the UK to remain inside the EU.

For Birmingham the EU referendum divided the city; more than three-quarters voted to Remain in the EU in some wards with the same ratio voting Leave in others. Overall, 50.4% voted to Leave. Across the city, 22 of Birmingham’s 40 wards voted to Leave and 18 to remain. For example, in Selly Oak, only 30.83% of voters wanted to Leave compared to 75.64% of voters in the Shard End ward.

The LBC commissioned YouGov survey that was undertaken from 1 September 2016 and targeted at a representative sample of 300 Birmingham residents shows that, since the election, there has been a swing to Remain from those responding to the survey. Thirty-nine per cent voted to Remain on 23 June with no difference between male and female voters. However, younger age groups were more likely to voted Remain (48% of those aged 18-24 and 42% of these aged 25-39). Only 30% of those over 60+ voted to Remain. For the LBC survey, 47% stated that they would now vote to Remain with more men than women changing their minds. The alteration in the voting behaviour of different age groups is very interesting. Sixty-four per cent of the 18-24 age cohort would now vote to Remain; this is a major shift from 48%. The older age cohort (60+) had increased slightly from 30% to 36%. The situation is much clearer when those who did not know how they would vote are those who would not vote are removed from the analysis. The shift towards Remain increases to 53%. Birmingham is a divided city with the divisions reflecting where citizen live, local conditions including the labour market and also age. Another division is by social class. Middle class respondents to the LBC survey tended to favour Remain. Thus 46% of middle class respondents (ABC1) claimed that they voted to Remain compared to 32% of C2DE respondents (working class). This alters with the question regarding how they would vote in another referendum; now 52% of the middle class group would vote to remain and 42% of the C2DE group.

What does this mean? It reveals that Birmingham is a city divided by class, difference between wards and by age cohort. It is a complex divided city. This reflects many of the underlying problems and geographies of the city of Birmingham – concentrations of the middle classes versus the working classes. Absent from this analysis is ethnicity, but this is hidden in the differential voting behaviour by ward.

The shift in voting intention can be explained by that much over-used word – uncertainty. The on-going preparations to negotiate what form Brexit takes may be considered as similar to the “Phoney War”: the eight-month period at the start of World War II, during which there were no major military land operations on the Western Front. This period of ‘Phoney Brexit’ negotiations is persuading citizens that perhaps the certainty of the known is much better or safer than the insecurity and uncertainty of an unknown situation in which the UK leaves the UK. In some respects, the Birmingham debate regarding Brexit needs to be placed in the context of the city’s and regions’ established trading relationships. For Brexit exports and trade matters.  In the year to March 2016 there was a decrease in annual export value for all English regions except the West Midlands, London, South East and South West. More importantly, the value of exports increased from only two regions – the West Midlands and the South West – and all other regions experienced a decrease. For the West Midlands the top exporting locations by value are in rank order: USA, China, Germany, France and the Irish Republic. More importantly trade to the USA and China has been increasing dramatically compared with trade to the EU. What has been happening in trading terms over the last decade is a gradually reworking of the West Midlands trading relations away from Europe towards other parts of the world. For part of Birmingham and the West Midlands, the US and China are much more important than any EU trading partner. But, this ignores the difficulties that might come with travel to and from Europe.

For the many citizens, the Brexit outcome came as a shock, but for others there was no shock – just an expectation that their lives might be better outside the EU. The shift in voting intensions between June and September 2016 reflects the on-going period of the “Phoney Negotiations”. Whatever the outcome, we do know that on-going uncertainty will encourage more citizens to shift towards Remain. The city, however, remains divided.

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