Alienating graduate voters ‘will become fatal’ for major parties

Education divide report finds Tory support among graduates lowest for 45 years and graduates will outweigh school-leavers in most seats by 2030s

November 27, 2023
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Conservative support among graduates is “at its lowest level in at least 45 years”, while higher education expansion means that by the 2030s alienating graduate voters will be “fatal to electoral prospects”, according to a new report.

A report on the educational divide in UK politics published by the Social Market Foundation and written by a group of academics led by Robert Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, also says that Labour must bridge a political gulf between graduates and school-leavers to win the next election.

The report finds that in the wake of the 2016 EU referendum, education “now has a stronger relationship with vote choice than most demographic or economic variables” and “only age divides are stronger”.

And the report – which analyses British Election Study Internet Panel (BESIP) data and National Census data showing levels of education across different constituencies, focused on England and Wales – stresses that higher education expansion is “transforming the electoral politics of the education divide”.

“If current trends continue, a majority of constituencies contested in the 2030s will have more graduates than school-leavers among their residents,” says the report, co-authored by Hannah Bunting, lecturer in quantitative British politics at the University of ExeterRalph Scott, a postdoctoral researcher at Cardiff University; and Maria Sobolewska, professor of political science at Manchester.

And “the school-leaver heavy electoral territory won over by the Conservatives in 2015-19 is disappearing”, it continues. “Within a decade, it will be almost gone.”

The report concludes: “Before 2011, neither party could afford to alienate school-leavers if it aspired to government – this was the dominant group almost everywhere. After 2031, a hostile graduate electorate will become similarly fatal to electoral prospects. That change is certain to come. The only question is how quickly the political parties get the message and respond.”

The report comes after Conservative prime minister Rishi Sunak called Labour’s 1999 target for 50 per cent of young people to enter higher education “one of the great mistakes of the last 30 years”.

While talk of education as a defining political divide has become common since the EU referendum – in which non-graduates largely backed Leave and graduates largely Remain – the researchers aimed to get to the root of the issue by using regression modelling to separate the impact of education from other demographic and economic factors impacting on voters’ choices.

The researchers also drilled down into the impact that education has on political views – a key factor not just around Brexit but on issues such as immigration and the environment, they say. The analysis finds that “university graduates see their education and their jobs as more important to their identities, are more likely to identify as middle class, less likely to identify as English or British, and more likely to identify as European”; that graduates are more likely to hold liberal social values; but that “education has little impact on voters’ economic values, which are driven more by social class and economic circumstances”.

The report looks at what the education divide means for all three major parties, including the “problems posed by a growing graduate electorate for a Conservative party which has alienated graduates in recent elections”.

“Only around one in five graduates supported the Conservatives in the most recent BESIP waves, a level of graduate support which is more than 10 points below that achieved under David Cameron,” it says. “If this is repeated at the coming general election, it will be the Conservatives’ worst electoral performance with graduates in at least 45 years.”

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