8 reasons we should stop assuming “northern” means “pro-Brexit”

The Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland. Image: Getty.

Northern England is Leave-land. Everyone seems to agree on that, from Leave-supporting Labour MPs worrying that being seen as anti-Brexit will kill the party in towns like Hartlepool, through to the hardcore Remain supporters who gloated when Nissan announced cutbacks to its Sunderland factory. And on the flipside, the South – especially London – is the Remain heartland where everyone is a champagne-swilling metropolitan elitist.

Only… things can’t be that simple. Northern England is a big place – using the government’s definition of the North, it has approximately 15 million residents, representing a quarter of the UK population, and it includes five of the country’s 10 largest urban areas, as well as vast tracts of farmland and national park. Talking about the North as a big Brexit-voting monolithic entity loses all the detail and nuance.

Here are eight facts that prove it.

1) Many regions within the North were majority Remain – and many down South were majority Leave

It’s no secret that the big Northern cities saw Remain majorities. The fact Manchester and Liverpool both saw Remain pushing 60 per cent in the referendum isn’t going to blow any minds, nor will the narrower Remain leads in Leeds and Newcastle.

But South Lakeland, a very rural district in Cumbria centred on Kendal, isn’t anyone’s idea of a Remain stronghold. Nor is Harrogate – for all its wealth, this safely Tory area on the edge of Leeds has a lot in common with many parts of the Home Counties that saw chunky Leave majorities. These areas voted 53 and 51 per cent Remain, respectively.

Other places in the North where most people voted Remain include Sefton, Stockport, Trafford, the Wirral and York – and although results were never announced for these towns, demographic modelling suggests Chester, Durham, Hexham, Macclesfield and Tynemouth can join this list too.

Travel to the other end of the country, and although there’s more Remain Yellow on the map, there’s also lots of Leave blue. Five of London’s 32 boroughs voted Leave, as did most of the districts immediately around London like Slough, Sevenoaks and Epping Forest.

Until I put these maps together, I hadn’t noticed that the Leave vote in the London Borough of Havering was actually higher than anywhere in North West England. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

2) Everywhere has large numbers of Leave and Remain voters

But what about, say, Sheffield? The fact that the city was declared for Leave was a major shock on the night, but the actual numbers are slightly less shocking: 51 per cent of Sheffield’s voters went for leave, 49 per cent went Remain. That’s an incredibly thin margin, even smaller than that of the nationwide result.

Demographic modelling suggests Sheffield Central had a Remain vote of around 69.6 per cent, putting it alongside wealthy London boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea, while Sheffield South East had a Leave vote of around 66.4 per cent, making it more Leave than Thanet, the only place with an actual UKIP council.

These very different areas sit alongside each other and largely cancelled each other out. The brain, which struggles at the best of times with comprehending hundreds of thousands of people at once, boils this down so Sheffield becomes a homogeneous Leave-supporting blob on the map.

Even in towns like Sunderland, where Leave’s victory was emphatic at 61.3 per cent, that still means that 38.7 per cent – nearly 4 in 10 – of those who voted chose Remain. That adds up to 51,930 Remain voters, enough to fill the Stadium of Light to capacity. Put them all on double-decker buses, the traffic jam would stretch 7km.


Blue is Leave, orange is Remain, pale colours are roughly even. There are a lot of pale areas. Image: Wikimedia Commons

3) The North has an awful lot of people – but not necessarily enough to stop Brexit alone

Quick question – which coastal urban area has more Remain voters: Brighton & Hove or Tees Valley?

In percentage terms, it’s an easy win for Brighton, but the raw numbers actually tilt towards Tees Valley, which has 120,000 Remainers to Brighton’s 100,000. Of course, this is because Tees Valley has a larger total population, but it still means that there’s a good chance that there are actually more Remain voters supporting Middlesbrough FC than Brighton & Hove Albion.

By the same principle, with so many millions of voters in Northern England, there are enough Remain voters (3.4 million) or Leave voters (4.3 million) to fill a city the size of Bristol several times over. There are more Northern Remain voters than it’s possible for the brain to comprehend.

Nevertheless, that means Northern England Leave’s margin of victory was just over 900,000. Nationwide it was over 1.2 million. No matter how you slice it, narrowly winning the North wouldn’t automatically have changed the result of the referendum – it would have taken even more voters either from the North, or from other parts of the UK.

4) Differences aren’t as big as percentages make it look

Imagine a speed-dating event where the residents of Newcastle (51 per cent Remain) get paired off with those from Sheffield (51 per cent Leave) solely according to their Brexit preferences. If 50 voters from each city showed up to this dystopian date night, almost all of them would be paired off, with just one Sheffield Leaver and one Newcastle Remainer single at the end. Although the cities voted in opposite directions overall, you could say the electorates of Newcastle and Sheffield are 98 per cent alike.

This scenario is a useful way to think about what voting differences mean in the real world. If you take two groups and have them mingle, how many in each group would really disagree with each other?

For a more extreme example, we can take Londoners (59.9 per cent Remain, 40.1 per cent Leave) and North Easterners (42.0 per cent Remain, 58.0 per cent Leave). Any newspaper will tell you that the difference between metropolitan London and the industrial North East is possibly the biggest divide in England and marks the two opposing camps of the culture war. And yet, of every 10 London voters who showed up to our speed-dating scenario, you’d expect 8 of them to find a partner from the North East. The great cultural divide seems less scary when you realise the sides are over 80 per cent alike.

5) Non-voters narrow the margins further

So far I’ve been careful to always refer to voters rather than just people. The EU referendum had the largest turnout of any nationwide vote for decades, but it was still only 72 per cent. In some places, it was very low indeed – Belfast West saw just 48.9 per cent turnout. And that doesn’t take into account the people who weren’t even eligible to vote in the first place, such as immigrants without the right citizenship, people who were underage at the time, and those who simply didn’t register in time.

The people of Sunderland aren’t really 61.3 per cent Leave, because turnout was just 64.8 per cent: less than 40 per cent of those eligible to vote went out and voted Leave, while 25 per cent voted Remain. The other 35 per cent of the electorate never voted at all (of course, this doesn’t mean they didn’t have an opinion on Brexit). If you include people who weren’t eligible to vote, the number gets even lower. Of the 278,000 or so people who live in the borough of Sunderland (admittedly, a figure that includes children), just 82,394 voted Leave. That’s less than 25 per cent of the population. Pick a random Mackem, and there’s a three in four chance they didn’t vote Leave.

So let’s repeat our speed-dating experiment, but include everyone who was registered to vote. Now, of every 10 Londoners that show up we’d expect about 3 Leavers, 4 Remainers and 3 non-voters, while our 10 North Easterners would typically include 4 Leavers, 3 Remainers and 3 non-voters. Nearly everyone’s going home with someone now.

6) Opinion polls show Remain gaining ground in the North

Anyway, that’s the past – what about the future? As the chances of a second referendum slowly increase, opinion polling companies have continued to ask people whether they consider Brexit a mistake, and whether they would vote Remain or Leave in a future referendum. Here’s where things get genuinely surprising.

Since November 2018, every YouGov poll that has included a regional breakdown has shown Northern England more Remain than Southern England by a significant margin (average Remain lead is 9.4 per cent in the North and just 3.4 per cent in the South). Admittedly, YouGov counts London separately from the South; but its definition still includes major Remain cities like Brighton, Bristol and Oxford.

It’s like watching Parliament vote down the deal in real time. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray, based on YouGov data.

7) Referendums don’t work like elections anyway

In the end, what does it really matter that Newcastle voted 51 per cent Remain? Nearly every Remain vote cast in the city was cancelled out by a Leave one, so Newcastle only had the tiniest effect on the nationwide total – and that was almost exactly countered by the narrow Leave vote in Sheffield. Unlike normal elections, where just a tiny vote increase can win you lots of marginal seats, there’s no prize for flipping a district in a referendum.

On the other hand, in a normal election there’s no value in increasing your vote share somewhere where you’ve already won. There’s also not much point winning voters in places where you’re really far behind. In a referendum, every vote counts. It doesn’t matter whether you live in London or Grimsby, your vote is exactly worth the same as everyone else’s. So it doesn’t matter if a majority of Sunderland voters did vote Leave – every Remain voter in Sunderland counted too.

8) In general, stereotyping is just a bad idea

Fine, there isn’t any data to back this up, but it should be self-evident. If Remain wants to win over Northerners – Leavers, non-voters and wavering Remain voters alike – it needs to treat them as individuals. It’s easy to let lazy thinking obscure this, and imagine the whole North is some monolithic racist hive-mind – just as it’s easy to imagine London is a chardonnay-scented Remain blob.

I could have pointed that the most Leave-voting districts aren’t in the North at all but the Midlands and near the South Eastern coast, but to be honest, everything in this article applies to those places too. Not everyone in the Midlands or Wales is Leave either, nor is every Scot a Remainer. Geographic stereotyping has plagued the national atmosphere for too long. If we ever want to end the toxic divisions in society, this is where we have to start.


Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.

As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City

New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.


In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.