The demise of the “left wing madrassa”?

Our understanding of the political divide between graduates and non-graduates needs a lot more nuance - a great new paper from the British Election Study explains where.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Over the weekend I spotted Ipsos voting intention polling with an intriguing split.

Rather than the usual “graduate”/”non-graduate” binary we are presented with “no qualifications”, “other qualifications”, and “degree+”. And whereas those with “no qualifications” split 49 per cent to 27 per cent for the Conservatives, both “degree+” (27% to 41%) and “other qualifications” (31% to 41%) tended towards Labour.

The usual culture wars framing suggests that courses like nurses, engineering, jazz studies, and physical geography are served with a side order of Marxism and critical race theory, making universities efficient machines for generating progressive voters. It’s clearly paranoid nonsense, but as we’ve noted on the site before a degree and a labour vote do tend to correlate. The “other qualifications” data suggests that something else might be going on.

A new paper – Red wall, red herring: economic insecurity and voting intention in Britain – from Jane Green and Roosmarijn de Geus – adds a helpful new framing: economic insecurity. Rather than think about whether or not a young person has a degree, the authors split the group (broadly) into “will haves” and “won’t haves”: young people likely to face lifelong economic insecurity. Not all graduates are “will haves”, not all non-graduates are “won’t haves”, but as we know graduates tend to earn more over a lifetime we can predict the skew of economic life chances will be towards those with a degree.

In the past, workers outside of the knowledge economy could expect secure work, home ownership, pensions, and a degree of familial social mobility – and arguably those days are gone. So many older non-graduates became “do haves” rather than “don’t haves”, a life course that seems far less likely for more recent generations. As the paper puts it:

Britons who are most concerned about immigration, who have the most socially conservative values and who are most pro-Leave, are also among the most economically secure voters. They are Britain’s older voters, and mostly non-graduates. Younger non-graduates are the most economically insecure, on average, and hold
more socially conservative views than younger graduates. But they are not as socially conservative, or pro-Brexit, as older non-graduates

The idea that the comfortably off vote Conservative feels like an old cliché, but it still seems to make sense. Talk of the “red wall” paints Northern constituencies as economically deprived, whereas in fact they contain many older – comfortably off – voters: and it is these voters that went for the Conservatives in larger numbers than ever before in 2019. Economically insecure voters in these places were simply less likely to vote.

In essence the story is about people, not places. And this is reason why the cost of living crisis is damaging to the Conservatives. Economic insecurity tends young, tends female, tends ethnic minority, and tends non-graduate – combinations of these attributes make people more likely not to vote at all, or to vote Labour.  Make non-graduates of any age and background more economically insecure, and they will behave in exactly that way.

There is no guarantee of winning over Britain’s most economically insecure voters, or keeping more secure voters through a “culture wars” frame. Both parties need to think about younger (under 40) non-graduates – such framings tend not to be as attractive to these groups. And high economic security tends to move graduates away from Labour – that party cannot rely on an overall “graduate swing”.

Feelings about economic security – though characteristics and location still have some impact – are likely to be a determining factor in the next election. Ironically we can be clear, as the government often are, that graduate outcomes rather than what graduates experience at university are the key consideration.

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