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Voter IDs

Paula Surridge assesses how graduates will affect voting patterns in the upcoming general election

Of the 40 constituencies with the highest proportion of graduates in England, 31 are in Greater London, a reflection of the pull of the capital for those with degrees. The remaining constituencies in this group are either just outside the Greater London boundary (Esher and Walton), or in university towns and cities (Cambridge, Oxford West and Bristol Central).

Meanwhile, the two constituencies in England with the lowest proportion of graduates are Clacton and Boston and Skegness. These two seats are at the top of Reform UK’s target list, contested by the party leader, Nigel Farage, and the party chairman, Richard Tice. They are also places where more than three in four voters backed leaving the EU.

It is no coincidence that these two things go together. We know that the Brexit vote was strongly correlated with education level at both the aggregate and individual level. But with Brexit barely featuring in the election campaign, might we expect the education divide to have faded as well?

Value judgments

The education divide is closely related to a persistent and longstanding values divide in British politics. Values are deep-seated beliefs about society; they are not a judgment on what is but rather what ought to be.

But while education is strongly correlated with a set of political values concerned with how society should manage issues of personal and political freedoms, authority and liberty, it is not correlated with a second set of values concerned with economic justice, the distribution of resources and economic power.

Brexit, immigration, attitudes to policing and climate change are more closely related to liberal-authoritarian values, while attitudes to nationalisation, taxation and redistribution are more closely related to left-right economic values—the old politics of class rather than education.

In this election, the most important priorities for the electorate are the cost of living, the economy and the NHS, which are issues primarily relating to economic values. We might, then, expect education to have relatively little impact. But it is more complicated than that.

Different priorities

The British Election Study panel survey, collected in May 2024 just prior to the election being called, suggests it is not only attitudes that are connected to education but also priorities. Among those whose highest qualifications are GCSEs or equivalent, immigration and the economy are almost equal priorities, with around one in three saying immigration is the most important issue to them. But among those with at least a degree-level qualification, immigration is the most important issue for only around one in ten voters, making it similar in importance to the environment.

While all groups say the economy is their top concern, other priorities are correlated with level of education. This is reflected in the competition between parties in different types of constituency. The key target seats of Reform UK, which is focusing its campaign on immigration, are those with few graduates and their leader is standing in a constituency with one of the lowest proportions of graduates in the country. By contrast, the Green Party is hoping to win a parliamentary seat for its co-leader, Carla Denyer, in Bristol Central, the constituency with the highest proportion of graduates outside Greater London.

Swings and turnouts

The swing to Labour since the 2019 election is large, with the Conservative share of the vote reduced by half in all education groups, falling from 57 per cent to 26 per cent among those whose highest qualifications are GCSEs or equivalent and from 32 per cent to 15 per cent among those with a degree or higher-level qualifications.

But key differences in voting intention related to education groups remain. One in five of those with GCSE qualifications or lower intend to vote for Reform UK, and while Labour enjoys majority support among those with degree or higher-level qualifications, one in five of these voters support either the Green party or the Liberal Democrats.

A further important element of the education divide at election time involves turnout. In the 2019 election, almost eight in ten of those with degree- or higher-level qualifications voted, while this was true of fewer than six in ten of those with GCSE or lower qualifications.

Party affiliations

While education continues to play a significant role in our electoral politics and is particularly important for understanding differences in participation and priorities around issues—as well as the values that underpin these—it is also correlated with party choice.

The Conservative Party is still less popular among those with a degree than among those without, although the gap has narrowed as levels of Conservative support reach very low levels; it is impossible to be 30 points ahead among those with lower educational qualifications when support even in this group is lower than 30 per cent.

The Labour Party, meanwhile, remains more popular among those with degrees than among those without, by a narrow majority. This gap has remained at a similar size, although overall levels of popularity for the party have risen in all groups.

But perhaps the most important education effect in this election and its aftermath will be on support for parties outside the main two.

Both Reform UK and the Green Party seek to win support from the larger parties on issues that are prioritised differently by groups with different levels of education. The distribution of graduates and non-graduates across constituencies creates both opportunities and challenges for these parties that will have ramifications not only at the upcoming general election but into the next parliament and beyond.

Paula Surridge is professor of political sociology at the University of Bristol and deputy director at UK in a Changing Europe