Sheffield's referendum results explain why Britain voted for Brexit

A UKIP rally in Sheffield last March. Image: Getty.

Britain is still reeling from the economic and political shock of the EU referendum result. While the nation struggles to get to grips with the consequences of Brexit, many in the UK and around the world are wondering how it came to pass. Certainly, it was a close call; only four percentage points confirmed the win for Leave (51.9 per cent) over Remain (48.1 per cent).

Fortunately, there’s one part of the country which can help us to make sense of the bigger picture: the city of Sheffield. Sheffield’s referendum vote was similar to the national one in a couple of ways. Like the rest of the country, the city voted in favour of Brexit by a paper-thin margin: just 51 per cent voted to Leave, with only 6,000 votes separating the Brexit and Remain camps. And right up until the eve of the result, Sheffield was expected to vote Remain – as was the UK as a whole.

To understand what happened here, we need to go back to April 2014, when UKIP leader Nigel Farage launched his campaign for the European Parliament elections in central Sheffield. For some, this seemed bizarre. Many had seen his party as an electoral threat primarily to the Conservatives. But Sheffield is a long-time Labour stronghold, in a Labour-dominated region. It hardly looked like fertile territory for a party nipping at the Conservatives’ heels. What was Farage up to?

At the launch, he made his intentions clear. Labour’s northern strongholds were very much in UKIP’s sights. Political scientists Rob Ford and Matt Goodwin later revealed that older, working class voters – who had long formed the core of Labour’s support – were becoming disillusioned. They felt “left behind” by social and economic change, and ignored by the political establishment (not least on concerns over rapid immigration from the EU). As a result, many were thinking of shifting to UKIP.

Left behind

South Yorkshire – one of the poorest regions in the UK – was home to many such voters. Although UKIP didn’t win Sheffield in the 2014 European election, its vote jumped by 13 percentage points, and it came a close second to Labour. The party did even better in nearby Barnsley, and in Doncaster and Rotherham, where it won.

Two years on, and Farage’s choice of launch location has been well and truly vindicated. UKIP’s core aim was always to take the UK out of the EU. And the recent referendum showed that the majority of Sheffield voters agreed with him.

That said, Brexit was backed by much larger majorities in most of the surrounding local authorities. Nearby Chesterfield, Bassetlaw and North East Derbyshire all voted Leave by more than 60 per cent, while Bolsover’s majority reached almost 71 per cent. Relatively speaking, the city was the most pro-EU place in its region.

Yet Sheffield was the only one of the north’s five largest cities to produce a Brexit majority. The others – narrowly in Leeds and Newcastle, but by larger margins in Manchester and Liverpool – opted to stay in the EU.

The graduate effect

The explanation for Sheffield’s puzzling position lies, once again, with the voters who feel “left behind”. Specifically, it seems as though the Remain campaign won over graduates, but failed to persuade the older, working class parts of the electorate. This is illustrated by the correlation between the proportion of university graduates in the local population, and support for Brexit.

Nationally, this is a very strong indicator. Support for Brexit was much lower among graduates than among other groups in the population, and areas with higher proportions of graduates had a correspondingly lower proportion of Leave voters.

This trend held true in South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, where the correlation between votes for Leave and the proportion of the population with a university degree is very strong indeed.

A strong indication. Image: Charles Pattie/author provide.

Sheffield is home to the region’s two universities, and over a quarter of the city’s population are graduates. Compared with Doncaster, Barnsley and Rotherham, where only 16 per cent or so of the population hold degrees, it’s not so surprising that support for Brexit was lower in the city than in much of the surrounding area.

A nation divided

The local authorities were the smallest units for which referendum results were released. But it is very likely that the strong correlation above was repeated within the city of Sheffield too. Brexit was almost certainly a less popular option in the south-west of the city (the most middle class area of Sheffield, where a very high proportion of the population holds degrees) than in the more working class east and north.


Indeed, it is almost certain that Sheffield Hallam – the only non-Labour constituency in the region, represented since 2005 by the Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg, who was left hanging by a thread in the last general election – will have seen a Remain majority. Almost one third of the constituency’s population were graduates in 2011, so if the region-wide correlation also held within the city, that would translate to 55 per cent voting for Remain. By contrast, the Brexit vote in Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough – where only 9 per cent of the population hold degrees – would be a massive 81 per cent.

There is anecdotal evidence to this effect. Remain posters predominated in the affluent south-west of the city, while Brexit posters were prominent elsewhere. And support for UKIP in the 2016 local elections was much higher in the north-east of Sheffield than in the south-west.

All of this paints a picture of a city deeply divided; a city where class, education and opportunity have shaped the political understandings of its people. And although we’re still waiting on a demographic breakdown of the results, it’s highly likely that such divisions will have cut through the rest of the UK, too. The case of Sheffield shows that the fracture lines in British society do not just run between north and south, Scotland and England, or rural and urban areas. They run through every community in the country.The Conversation

Charles Pattie is professor of electoral geography at the University of Sheffield.

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The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.