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.


Why is it acceptable to kill someone? On the mysterious history of Britain’s road death toll

A London speed camera, 2004. Image: Getty.

A decade ago I became fascinated by a graph. This one:

I had been tracking the underlining data for years. The figures were easy to remember. Every year it was 3,500, plus or minus a percentage point or two.

Yet when the 2008 data was released, it had fallen to 2,538. This was 1,000 less than the figure in 2003. I plotted the above graph, and as I said, I became fascinated.

Because this is a really important graph. This is a plot of the number of people killed on Britain’s roads each year.

In Great Britain, collectively, we used to kill nearly 3,500 people on our roads every year. Consistently or, dare I say it, boringly: 3,500 deaths a year, 10 a day. It was accepted, in a, “Well yes it’s bad, but what can you do about it” kind of way. There was no clamour for change. Newspapers weren’t running headlines about the deaths mounting up, as they do with knife crime.

Meanwhile a train crash would be front page news for a week. Take the train that derailed at Hatfield on 17 October 2000, a tragedy in which 4 people died. That led to huge media interest, massive upheaval on the railways, and, ultimately, as the re-nationalisation of Railtrack, whose failings had caused the crash. Yet more than twice as many people will have died on the roads that day. Nothing was written about those deaths. Nothing changed.

In 2000, four people died in train crashes, while 3,409 died on the roads.

Here are those figures again.

1997 – 3,599 people killed on our roads

1998 – 3,422

1999 – 3,423

2000 – 3,409

2001 – 3,450

2002 – 3,431

2003 – 3508

But, in 2004 the figure dropped below 3,400 for the first time, to 3,221. Then in 2005 to 3,201.

2006 – 3,172

2007 – 2,946

Below 3,000! This was change. Significant change: 500 lives a year were not being lost. If you use Britain’s roads, your life may have been one of them.

2008 – 2,538

2009 – 2,222

When the 2010 figures came out I was amazed by the headline figure: 1,857.

That’s still far too high, of course, but it was 1,701 lower than seven years earlier.

This was a major story that deserved a ton of coverage, which it failed to get. Having shown no concern for when we were killing 3,500 people, it wasn’t overly surprising that the fact we were now killing 1,700 fewer wasn’t celebrated.

At any rate, the graph had flat-lined for years, then, in half a dozen years, it halved. Why?

The lack of media coverage resulted in an absence of answers. One commentator, Christian Woolmar, observed that there was no clear answer to why this had happened. But he went on to point out that there had been a fall in the average road speed over this period.

My anticipation of the 2011 figures troubled me, because I expected them to go up. Obviously I didn’t want them to: I desperately want zero deaths on our roads. But something happened in 2010 that I was sure would lead to more fatalities and bring a halt to the falling trend.

I was right. In 2011 we killed 1,901.

Sometimes, being right is shit.

The news was better in 2012. The fatality rate was 1,754. So was the 2011 figure just a blip, due to some significant snowfalls that year? No: the trend was over.

The number of people killed on our roads has remained stuck in the 17 hundreds. 

2013 – 1,713

2014 – 1,775

2015 – 1,732

2016 – 1,792

2017 – 1,793

2018 – 1,782

We have returned to a flatline on the graph – and if anything, I’m more fascinated now than I was before. Road deaths flatlined at 3,500 for years, then fell sharply, then flatlined again at half the rate.

This can’t have happened by accident. I wished I could explain it. I wish we could repeat it. No: I wish the second flatline hadn’t happened, and the fall had continued. If the rate of fall had continued, we’d have reached zero deaths on the road by now. You’d be right to question whether this is possible – but if you can half the number in a few years, why can’t we eradicate them altogether? The railways are an example of what is possible. The last time a passenger died in a train crash on Britain’s railways was in 2007.

It was time to figure out the answers to two questions. Why did the death toll fall? And why did it stop falling?

The obvious reason for a reduction in deaths on the road is the improvement in car safety features. This could create a gradual fall in the death toll as new, safer cars replaced older ones. But I’m not sure it can explain a 40 per cent fall over a 4 year period.

There’s a way to check whether cars on the road became almost twice as safe between 2003 and 2010: you can compare the figures with the rest of the EU. Car safety features are international, and any new feature would have appeared around the same time across the continent.

So I found the EU figures for 2000 to 2017, indexed for 2000 and plotted the graph for multiple countries. It was a busy graph. For clarity the following graph only includes Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy along with a straight line drop for comparison.

The good news is that things are improving across Europe – but no country had quite the same trajectory as Britain. They all have a fall much closer to a straight line of the sort you’d expect a general improvement in car safety would produce.

One thing I did notice is that, from 2013, these five countries stop falling. The technology based solutions of recent years, such as automatic emergency braking, don’t appear to be saving lives as of yet.

So, yes, cars are safer – but that doesn’t seem to explain why British roads suddenly became 40 per cent safer between 2006 and 2010.

In 1999, the New Labour government announced that it was going to reduce deaths on our roads. The target was a 50 per cent reduction by 2010. As you now know, it succeeded. This was a major achievement for a government. The kind of thing you would bang on about all the time. “Deaths on our roads halved by Labour!” But the party wasn’t in government when the 2010 figures were released – and it’s hard to take credit for your achievements from the opposition benches.

That it was government policy is not a full explanation, and how this happened is a little opaque. From what I can gather there was a wide ranging approach. The fire and rescue service changed their practices: because they recognised that survival rates were directly dependent on how quickly people got to hospital, this became the priority. Disturbing a police crime scene was allowed if it saved a life. Accident black spots were located, highlighted and safety measures implemented. Throughout that period road safety campaigns focused on speed, with “Speed Kills” being the dominate message for that decade. The government also changed the laws on speed cameras.

RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has a lot to say about speeding and speed cameras. Its “Speed Camera Factsheet” states that, “Cameras are a very effective way of persuading drivers not to speed, and thereby reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured.” It reports that an independent review published by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2005 said that “cameras significantly reduce speeding and collisions, and cut deaths and serious injuries at camera sites”, adding that cameras sites were delivering 100 fewer deaths per year.

Cameras first appeared in 1991, and revenue from court fines and fixed penalties went to the Exchequer. However in 2000 a trial scheme saw local councils keep the fines to pay for the cost of speed and red-light cameras. The pilot was so successful that, in 2001, legislation enabled this to happen across the country. The cost of providing and operating cameras moved from the local authority to the law breaking motorist.

The golden age of the speed camera had begun.

There was a tweak to this legislation in 2007. Fines reverted back to the Exchequer’s piggy bank. The DfT switched to funding cameras through a road safety grant. The intention was to create a greater mix of road safety measures agreed between local authorities and the police.

The number of people killed on British roads in 2007: 2,946

The number of people killed on British roads in 2010: 1,857

So perhaps the creation of the Road Safety Grant had a significant impact.

The second question: why did the death toll stop falling?

In 2010 I was unaware of Labour’s target to halve deaths on the roads. But, the change in government was enough for me to predict that the fall was over.

When the Tory/Lib Dem government negotiated its way into power in May 2010, the press declared that it was the end of the horrible nanny state – a return to personal freedom, liberty and the rule of common sense.

The way that this was to play out in real practical terms was on our roads. The evil speed camera was in the firing line. The narrative was that these cameras were just there so councils could extract cash from the poor public. Completely ignored were the facts that the fines were only handed down to dangerous, law-breaking drivers, and that councils no longer got the cash from fines.

Soon after the election the coalition government said that “Labour's 13-year war on the motorist is over” and pledged to scrap public funding for speed cameras. The Road Safety Grant to local authorities was cut from £95m to £57m. This meant that the government was now receiving an estimated £40m more raised in fines than it was spending on road safety. The cut to the grant reduced the camera maintenance budget by 27 per cent. It removed all the funding for new cameras, speed humps and other safety measures.

And the golden age ended.

Councils across the country announced their change of policy. Oxfordshire County Council switched off its speed cameras on 1 August 2010. Money was saved; lives were lost.

Eight months later, on 1 April, Oxfordshire’s cameras snapped back into life when the council reversed its decision because deaths on the county’s roads had immediately increased.

Turning off speed cameras sent out the message that we were no longer taking speeding seriously. The road safety campaigns changed their focus. The message that Speed Kills fell away and was replaced by drink- and drug-driving messages. It’s easy to miss that these campaigns move from encompassing virtually every driver to targeting a minority. A switch from confronting a socially acceptable behaviour to re-enforcing something already unacceptable. The state is no longer challenging everyone to be safe – only the small minority of bad people.

Yet speed still kills. The World Health Organisation states that an increase in average speed of 1 km[h typically results in a 3 per cent higher risk of a crash involving injury, with a 4–5 per cent increase for crashes that result in fatalities.
The majority of safety measures installed before 2010 remain in place and are saving lives. But with the funding gone councils are no longer installing new measures and the death toll is no longer falling.

So you can make a strong case that the pattern of road deaths was the result of government policy.

Which begs the question of our government: why has it accepted that it’s OK to kill, or be killed, on our roads?