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In counting votes, geography doesn’t matter in a national referendum. But where we live is crucial to shaping our political views.

If you just want to know the final result of the EU referendum, get a good night’s rest tonight and get up with sunrise Friday when the result is clear (there’s no public exit poll).

If you stay up all night, the ‘action’ will trickle in one by one as almost 400 local councils report the voter totals in their district. It will be like watching two big hourglass vote totals, trickling sand neck-and-neck for 7 hours. 

How are the TV presenters, guests and analysts going to make it interesting? Basically, they will need to speculate from their TV studio about whether a local result is what we would expect in that locality.

Everyone will be looking for surprises – places that have bucked our expectations or go against our intuition about how they ‘should’ vote. The pundits will try and find in a single local result clues as to the results about to be reported in other parts of the country. It will be an attempt to keep it interesting and to suggest the balance of the final national total.

Here’s the challenge for them: individual local results will be the result of such a complex range of factors, they will rarely offer any clues. Yes, we may start to see patterns, but I predict we will see a nation of exceptional results - results that seem inexplicable against our centrist model of understanding society.

Pollsters have already dared to predict how the votes will tally in each local area. Sunderland will race to declare the first few thousand votes in a count of about 30 million nationwide. One estimate is that if the referendum were 50/50 nationally, we would expect a 53% leave vote in Sunderland. Rather than being based on detailed local surveys, these forecasts are based on statistical methods that put together patterns, extend national trends to the local level, and build upon layers of assumptions. It will be hard for all of this to hold together.

Technically, the final total is the only total that matters. Practically, I think many will for years to come refer back to whether a majority of people in ‘their patch’ in fact voted the other way to the rest of the UK. Local leaders will be empowered by access to local knowledge that is beyond the reach of our national media; explaining how the votes tallied in different counties, cities and neighbourhoods. You’d hope we’d have a comprehensive network of local journalists to offer this insight tonight and tomorrow, but our models of mass media don’t yet work that way.

So, you can picture it now; the whole evening will become a game of local results which exceed or fail to meet expectations. Imagine, the Sheffield result is called, with a narrow margin in favour of leaving the EU. Heads are scratched. Now improvised chatting as hosts clutch at stereotypes and caricatures:

“Sheffield, well - an industrial city, historically”

“Ah yes. And remember, Tata might be closing their steel plant nearby? Worries about jobs. But Sheffield also has a big university student population…”

“…we know that graduates tend to favour remain. But turnout is lower among young people”

“Nick Clegg is the local MP. Could this be a factor in the result?”

From Friday onwards, the illusion that you can assume people are in a political category, based on the postcode of their home, will be shattered. As we know from surveys, but also from our own family and friends, the EU vote has cut across some of society’s traditional political divisions – between older and younger people, richer and poorer households, etc.. – but it’s not just that this is a one-off referendum on a special issue. It’s not just that our assumptions of politics based on demographics are weakening. It’s that the climate for public engagement in politics is shifting, faster during the EU referendum campaign. We see people motivated to action precisely through a rejection of being assumed to lean one way or another on an issue.

For decades, political parties and government bodies have tried to centralise and coordinate their communications with ‘the public’, often borrowing data analysis tools and approaches developed in the commercial world. This is clever stuff. It can be hugely useful. If you want to sell holidays, you want to place adverts in locations and through channels which attract the people you think will be interested. The logic extends to the democratic system in the shape of political parties and politicians trying to secure votes from people who they think will be interested in supporting their ideas, their policies or their values (or perhaps trusting or admiring, the character and personality of individuals).

Information systems and targeted communications have been used very effectively, for example by the Obama campaigns. But on another level, being profiled and bombarded with messages is an alienating experience. Try and place yourself in one of the social categories suggested by a data profiling company or find out what ‘type of neighbourhood’ you live in. It will be frustrating because it is inevitably an over-simplification. Whole neighbourhoods are coloured in a single shade, obscuring the diversity behind every front door – for example many families are split on the Brexit issue. 

Simplification and segmentation are sensible in marketing, where the biggest value is to be found among the more affluent members of the public. But we govern our country on the principle that all citizens have an equal voice. It’s OK to ignore ‘segments’ of the public if you don’t think its worthwhile trying to sell to them. It’s foolish to systematically ignore anyone’s interests in a democracy.

Many of the voices I’ve heard, from both leave and remain supporters, want to use their vote defiantly. People are frustrated that coming from somewhere else is an assumption about how they should vote. Or how they should feel about immigration. Or how they should recognise in their wallet the claimed benefits of EU free trade. All of these shoulds deny local lived experience and ignore the ways in which places shape identity. 

To be known and understood as person is a very basic human condition. We could think the same about places. The fundamentals that have dominated the EU campaign – jobs, wages, the cost of living (especially housing), and public services like the NHS and schools – are experienced very differently dependent on where you live, as well as by personal circumstances. Just wait until David Dimbleby gives 15 seconds to explain to the rest of the nation why the vote went the way it did in your part of the country. 

Messaging only works if you trust the messenger, and UK politics has yet to come to terms with the reality of a new media and information age. If you still have any capacity to look at polling data in relation to the referendum, consider these staggering figures on how much (or rather how little) people trust others. In the long-term, trust in business, politics and the media has been falling. Although one prominent trust measure shows some recovery in 2016, it also found the UK public is highly unequal in its general levels of trust. 

The result is that the relative trust that we place in the opinions of our friends, family, colleagues and neighbours is strengthened, becoming more important. (Anecdotally, some have reported that a key challenge to overcome in canvassing voters into the leave or remain camp is that people don’t know anyone voting differently). Our social networks are shaped by where we live. Although social media platforms are ‘placeless’ and global, and play a role in sharing information and shaping views, our online networks tend to mirror our offline world. 

What we’ll be reminded of throughout the early hours of Friday is that a population is only fully understood in the context of the locality – or localities – it inhabits. Our views are shaped by the people we know. These networks – online and offline – are in turn shaped by the places the networks operate. Places are home to schools, workplaces, sports clubs and many other organisations which shape our networks. These organisations are rooted in place and connected to the history of a place.

Today it seems likely that whether we leave or remain in the EU as a nation the result will rest on a balance of votes between places: between residents of London and other large cities, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the rest of the UK. 

There is only one certainty, for me: we will be in a new political geography from Friday. This will shape the way we at the RSA continue our work on localism, our Inclusive Growth Commission and our upcoming Citizens Economic Council

As you wait for the result tonight, you may be better off ignoring the pundits. Without adequately understanding the dynamics of place in politics, this is a revolution that will not be televised.


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