Though a Conservative landslide was always on the cards, something about the 2019 election result has unsettled the higher education sector.
The infamous Michael Gove quote about experts, and very visible remain advocacy during the 2016 referendum campaign, has positioned the sector outside of the mainstream of UK culture. Now an internationalist popular left-wing party has been soundly beaten in a general election, and it feels like the university is a steadfast expression of the “elite” that other activists and politicians like to position the country against.
In the Blair years, higher education was linked to aspiration, and the much maligned (and now achieved) 50 per cent participation target was about making university something everyone could have a chance to do – the years of Johnson and May added more than a tempering of betrayal to that mix. University aspirations, or a university in a constituency, perceptibly changes the feel of a local area – but is this change evidence of cultural influence or just a volume of graduates? With 2019 very much a watershed election, could the preferences of university staff and students be having an impact in local trends?
Turnout and majority
Are constituencies with universities in likely to see changes in the size of the majority of the winning party, or changes in voter turnout?
No. Turnout is down on 2017 (with a wet December day certainly playing a part in this trend). Intriguingly, turnout fell more in seats now held by Labour, and less in seats held by the SNP. SNP seats, too, saw a polarisation effect – the majority is higher for the winning party on a higher turn out. Conservative seats tended towards a falling turnout and a rise in polarisation.
But there was no way of associating “university seats” with these trends. Behavior was indistinguishable from non-university seats. More generally, if you are looking for an “anyone but the tories” get-the-vote-out pattern in any seat in England you will look in vain. Like other elections before it, 2019 was not the tactical voting election.
One common idea during the campaign was that non-Conservative parties were more attractive to younger people. I’ve been able to plot the proportions of each generation in each constituency, and then split by 2019 winning party.
You can see that the difference here is stark, particularly when considering labour held seats. And for generation Z (18-24) and millennial (25-34) heavy seats, it is those with universities that dominate. A complicating factor is that seats with large numbers of younger people do tend to have universities in them – though if you remove a few outliers the parties look a lot more similar if you remove university seats from the plot.
Universities and “the Brexit election”
In the early hours of Friday morning, many on the Labour side were repeating the idea (first suggested by Sky News) that the rejection of Labour was all about a desire for Brexit. Universities being famously anti-Brexit, you’d think you’d see a difference between constituencies with or without a load of students and academics working in them. You’d be wrong.
While there is a clear party difference – super Brexity seats tend to be strongly Conservative, super Remain-y seats tend to be strongly labour and SNP – there is not a clear difference between university seats and others.
Is there a wider divide between seats where young people are likely to attend university and seats where there are not? One clear correlation I spotted was a negative one between the swing towards the Conservatives in seats that now have a conservative MP and POLAR young participation rates.
While all kinds of seats can and do return Conservative MPs, the full-throated acclamation tends to be in places where few young people will attend universities. Whether the Conservative party have successfully appealed to an anti-intellectual mindset is probably a step further than this data can take us – but it certainly makes for uncomfortable reading when the ruling party is disproportionately popular among those whose young people will never earn a degree.