Degrees of separation

Think tank: Social Market Foundation

Author(s): Robert Ford; Hannah Bunting; Ralph Scott; Maria Sobolewska

November 27, 2023

This report from UK think tank the Social Market Foundation looks at the education divide in British politics.

British politics since the 2016 Brexit referendum has been characterised by the emergence of a new divide, between graduates and school leavers. Education now has a stronger relationship with vote choice than any other demographic or economic variables other than age. This Social Market Foundation report, from leading political scientist Professor Robert Ford, explores the implications of the changing electoral landscape for the UK’s major political parties. The report shows that the education divide played a decisive role in determining the outcome of the 2017 and 2019 elections, as school leavers and graduates swung behind the Conservatives and Labour respectively.

The education divide also remains pertinent for politics to this day, as it is deeply rooted in social values and identities – graduates tend to hold more liberal values and are more likely to identify as middle class, whereas school leavers tend to have more authoritarian views and consider themselves working class. This divide poses serious electoral dilemmas for both the Conservatives and Labour, as the parties will have to perform well in both graduate-heavy and school leaver-dominated seats to have a hope of winning a majority of seats at the next election. It also presents a golden opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to build a coherent heartland in the ‘blue wall’ of graduate-dominated seats that were once reliably Conservative. Yet demographic changes mean that the number of seats where school leavers outnumber graduates is dwindling. This means that, by the 2030s, any electoral strategy that alienates graduates is likely to be a losing one.