How we got here
On the 31st January 2020, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is set to withdraw from the European Union – marking the end of the beginning of ‘Brexit’ – something which whether ‘remain’ or ‘leave’, has dragged on for some time. It is this sentiment, that seemed to bear out for voters during the UK general election back in December 2019.
Regardless of your opinion on the matter, the withdrawal deal is signed and it is all but inevitable Brexit will happen. It hard to remain balanced, and if you follow my Twitter, you probably have a sense of which side of the debate I land, but I will try to, somehow, avoid being political and concentrate on maps. I have been a bit delayed in creating these maps, but given the events at the end of the month, I think it is a good time to reflect on the story how Britain came to be in this situation, and this can be clearly seen in maps.
The comparison of before and after the 2019 general election maps above shows what a disastrous night Labour had, their worst election in number of seats since 1935, dropping 60 MPs to 202 seats. Meanwhile, the Conservatives gaining 48 seats and 43.6% of the vote – the highest percentage by any party since 1979.
Most striking is the geography of this. Areas such as Lancashire, North Wales and West Midlands turned blue – but perhaps most significant Labour’s traditional ‘red wall’ in North East England and South Yorkshire was broken. Areas like Blyth Valley had voted Labour all but once before until this election; Bishop Auckland had never returned a Tory MP in its 134 year history; Don Valley had been held by Labour since 1922.
Brexit – Gain or Pain?
This was unusual and historic, but why?
Labour’s leadership (or arguably lack of), was something of concern and no doubt a contributor to this result. The inability to connect with core voters, let alone win over new ones in ‘swing seats’ played out in this election. This against an incumbent government in power for 9 years, which in normal circumstances would likely be starting to be seen as old and needing change. But not only did this not happen, in Scotland as well, Labour all but evaporated against the SNP. Issues like the NHS, public services reductions, companies leaving the UK, austerity etc just did not hit home to voters.
I’ve used words like ‘historic’ and ‘normal circumstances’ – and this is because politics in Britain is not under normal circumstances, because of, and you know this is coming, Brexit. To understand the 2019 vote, you have to go back to 2016 and the EU referendum. Traditional Labour heartlands, like Blyth Valley and Don Valley voted heavily towards ‘Leave’, according to vote estimations. The polling numbers aren’t a direct comparison, as the referendum voting boundaries were not based on MP constituencies like in general elections. However, data from a study from University of East Anglia, has allowed estimates to be made from ward level and demographics data of Leave/Remain vote by MP constituency.
Getting Britain done
In the map above, we can see that it is in these strong ‘Leave’ voting areas in Yorkshire, Lancashire, North East, North Wales and West Midlands, that Tories gained many seats with their straight-forward ‘Get Brexit Done’ mantra, however benign and nonsensical. Even for those which remained Labour, for example South Wales valleys, one can see how differently these areas voted on the Brexit issue. Equally, some areas of southern England, London and Thames Valley which voted ‘Remain’, still voted traditionally Tory.
Scotland, that voted predominantly ‘Remain’, areas that voted as such saw SNP gains from Tories, as well as Labour. In many respects Labour were squeezed geographically by two forms nationalism. One from old Labour voters turning blue because of Brexit, as well as Tory voters remaining loyal (Remain or not); and Scottish (and less so, Welsh) nationalism.
As I finished my previous post on this subject, political geography is never fixed, and this is certainly played out in December 2019. After whatever happens after 31st January 2020, we’ll potentially see that it is not just political geography that is changeable – for better or worse.
EU Ref 2016 and 2019 UK General Election Cartogram