Brexit in Sunderland: The production of difference and division in the UK referendum on European Union membership

Harry Bromley-Davenport, Julie MacLeavy*, David Manley

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)
917 Downloads (Pure)


There is a growing narrative that the outcome of the UK referendum on European Union membership was the product of disenfranchisement and disillusionment wrought by the uneven consequences of economic restructuring in different UK regions, cities and communities. Those most likely to vote ‘leave’ were concentrated among those ‘left behind’ by globalisation, whilst those voting ‘remain’ were clustered within more affluent areas and social groups. These uneven geographies of leave and remain voting have been taken to reveal two diametrically opposed groups in British politics, obscuring the messy and contradictory ways in which votes are cast. In seeking to bring these complexities to light, this paper explores the motivating factors behind the Brexit vote amongst older working-class white men in Sunderland, England. The paper shows how economic stagnation and the experience of different forms of marginality led to a nostalgia for times past and a mistrust of political elites amongst this cohort. The paper documents how the feelings expressed by research participants became linked to the European Union project and its real and perceived impacts on the local area. In doing so, it shows that the referendum shaped and changed the electorate by asking them to align themselves with those either for or against Britain’s membership of the EU. The paper concludes by reflecting on the possibilities for creating an inclusive form of politics that treats different responses to the referendum question as the basis for an open conversation about democracy and democratic ideals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)795-812
Number of pages18
JournalEnvironment and Planning C: Politics and Space
Issue number5
Early online date15 Oct 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2019


  • Brexit
  • Gender
  • Regional Inequality
  • Sunderland
  • UK


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