SMF finds degrees of separation

There are more graduates in the UK, and the way they vote and think is becoming a dominant force in politics

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

In the past, if I wanted to guess how you might vote, there’s a bunch of questions I could have asked to find out.

“How much do you earn?” would be an easy winner, closely followed by “what job do you do?”, “what did your parents do”?, and “where do you live?”

These days there is one question that trumps all of those – “what’s your highest level of education?” This has a frankly astonishing level of discrimination – if you answer that you left school at 16 you are much more likely to vote Conservative (and have voted leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum) – if you are a graduate I would feel safe in guessing you voted Labour and Remain.

Ten years ago, your answer to this question would have told me almost nothing about your political leanings.

The 2016 referendum isn’t an accidental reference – it represents pretty much the exact moment that this widely accepted seismic shift in the political landscape occurred.

Robert Ford, Hannah Bunting, Ralph Scott, and Maria Sobolewska’s report for the Social Market Foundation – Degrees of Separation: The education divide in British politics – is not the first piece of research to detail this new geological feature, but it may well be the most exhaustive and the most dramatic in scope.

At heart, this phenomenon is about identity as much as education. Graduates, it seems, see their graduateness as central to their identity, as they do their profession. For those who left school at 16 where they live (and perhaps their ethnicity) are key.

Your education, these days, is a strong predictor of class identity. With a professional occupation being so closely linked to a higher education qualification this is perhaps unsurprising – though a regression analysis (based on a very health sample size) finds:

Yet, remarkably, past educational experience has just as large an impact on class allegiances as the jobs people do and the incomes they earn. Graduates are more likely than school leavers to identify as middle class, and to reject a working class identity, while school leavers hold the opposite pattern of allegiances. Being middle class is now as much about having a degree as it is about having a high income or a professional job.

That – if you stop to think about it – is a remarkable finding. Doubly so if you consider the growth in the graduate population (we will outnumber, somehow, non-graduates at some point in the next decade) and the likely repercussions of parties on both sides of the political spectrum trying to double down on what will be the dominant set of socio-cultural views.

Graduates are more likely to be concerned about the environment, and less likely to be concerned about immigration. The differences in opinion are reinforced by differences in salience – graduates aren’t just less keen on measures to limit immigration, they are less likely to cite the issue of immigration as one that is important. Likewise, graduates are more likely to be in favour of policies to address environmental issues, and more likely to cite such issues among the most important problems facing the nation.

The new graduate liberalism is on the social rather than the economic end of liberalism, and like much of the future is unlikely to be evenly distributed. It will skew young, and it will be inherently localised (the phenomenon of graduate accretion in inner cities and university towns is already well established.

What Ford et al are tracing here is the backdrop to the next few elections – and the impetus behind a likely shift in the political climate. But they are keen to remind us that changes like this are seldom permanent. Though there will be unquestionably be more graduates in the short to medium term, we should not rely on the patterns that are sketched here remaining. As they conclude:

The education divide that has opened up over the last decade is therefore very likely to change once again in the decade to come, as the relentless process of demographic change continues to reshape the electoral map. 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.

6 responses to “SMF finds degrees of separation

  1. This is really just an age thing and correlation rather than causation. Younger people regardless of qualifications are less likely to vote Conservative and – as they have higher levels of formal education – this translates into an apparent age effect.

    This has been exacerbated by the ruthless and massively successful targeting of older voters by The Conservative Party since 2016 and the associated shift in their political platform driving far greater voting polarisation by age and so by education level.

    Looking at the 2019 General Election, there is far less difference in the percentage of people voting Conservative in each age/qualification group if you include non-voters in the denominator:

    18-34: No Qualifications 11%; Other Qualifications 13%; Degree 13%
    35-54: No Qualifications 23%; Other Qualifications 28%; Degree 22%
    55+: No Qualifications 40%; Other Qualifications 45%; Degree 39%

    So what the data is mainly showing is that Conservative voters in low-qualification groups are more likely to vote than others with the same level of qualifications (shock!):

    Data from

    If the Conservatives shifted back to a similar political platform to the one they had in 2010 and 2015 and managed to attract under 50s to vote for them again, the apparent education effect would be much reduced (as is shown by David Cameron’s Conservative Party winning among graduates in 2010 and 2015 – see e.g.

    1. It’s worth having a good read of the (excellent) SMF report, which makes what I think is a compelling case that there is a structural realignment underway. Based on some serious survey work by Rob Ford and his team education is now a better predictor of voting attention than age.

      1. I will have a detailed read but I haven’t found the argument persuasive when articulated by others previously as the effect appears to largely vanish if you control for age and it just feels highly unlikely that graduates suddenly became socialists between 2015 (when a plurality voted for David Cameron) and 2017 (when graduates deserted the Conservative Party along with many others under the age of 50) – it’s largely a function of the Conservative’s political platform at this moment in time

  2. As usual this isn’t about “British Politics” at all, but about England extrapolated to assume the rest of “Britain” behaves the same.

    In fact the latest Ipsos Scotland specific poll shows that the SNP are currently by far the strongest party among ‘degree’ graduates and Labour are by far the strongest among the small number of those claiming ‘no qualifications’. This also correlates with my experience of anecdotal evidence and widespread concensus. However these are statistically small samples and we must await less volatile polling (Redfield and Wilton had totally different overall results in their recent poll) and more comprehensive contemporary surveys to see whether this is confirmed. We also need Scottish specific education categorisation, as one third of full time HE participation in Scotland is the non-degree HNC/D in Colleges.

    The Scottish based academic Ailsa Henderson has a very good short article in last year’s UK in a Changing Europe collections about post-Brexit politics titled “The end of ‘British Politics’?” that puts a good case for ceasing use of the term. WonkHE writers would benefit from reading and following it.

    1. In fact I notice the SMF report has a fundamental disclaimer which begs the question as to why they felt compelled to put ‘British Politics’ in their title?

      “In this report we focus on education divides in England and Wales. While education divides are likely to play an important role in Scotland and Northern Ireland, both the education system and the party system of Scotland are now very different to England and Wales. The party system of Northern Ireland is also very distinctive, and most academic political studies do not gather separate data on Northern Ireland, making changing patterns of voting harder to analyse. Both constituent nations also have their own statistical agencies, complicating access to data such as census data which we need to assess changing education divides.”

      1. Though I do think this disclaimer also understates the ongoing increased differentiation in the education system in Wales/Cymru (including Language issues) compared to England.

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