Polling companies and political scientists have spent the last couple of years struggling to catch up with a rapidly changing political landscape, with some successes to their credit. What were once safe predictors of people’s voting intentions, such as social class or income, no longer seem so decisive. Instead, age, education, and whether we live in a city or the countryside seem to be the most reliable indicators of political attitudes. In the ‘Brexit’ Referendum, the clearest divide between ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ voters was in their respective levels of education. Voters with a university degree voted by a margin of 68% to 32% to remain in the European Union. Voters with qualifications no higher than GCSE voted by a similar margin, 70% to 30%, to leave. The 2017 general election saw the return of two-party dominance in the polls, with the Conservatives and Labour sharing a little over 80% of the vote. Here age was the most important factor: amongst first-time voters, Labour had a lead of 47%; amongst voters over 70, the Conservatives led by 50%. Even so, education, remained a significant factor, with Labour enjoying a significant lead amongst those with a degree, and the Conservatives amongst those qualifications no higher than GCSE. In this module, we will be looking in a little more detail at the reasons why education has become a dividing line in modern British politics, and thinking about some of the implications this may have.
British society has undergone some notable changes in recent decades, which can be tracked through the data provided by the Office for National Statistics. The UK population continues to grow relatively rapidly. It currently stands at a little over 65 million, but is predicted to pass 70 million by 2027. This growth is largely driven by two factors: increasing life expectancy and inward immigration. An aging population poses distinct challenges, whether we are looking at increasing costs in health and social care, at pensions, or at the politics of housing. Rising house prices and rents, and stagnating incomes amongst the working-age population have led to a decline in home-ownership, particularly amongst the young. Immigration offsets some of the consequences of these demographic changes, since most people entering the country are of working age. However, it can create other challenges, particularly in areas of the country experiencing rapid population growth. The working population is more mobile, with individuals more likely than older generations to switch jobs at least once in their lifetime. Working patterns are also changing: more people are in some form of self-employment, part-time work or on short-term contracts. The most important change concerns women’s employment outside the home. As of 2017, the female employment rate (age 16-64), stood at 70%, compared to 52% in 1971. Younger members of the workforce are likely to have more qualifications, in part because of increasing demand from employers, and in part because of greatly increased access to higher education.
With these changes have come changes in social attitudes. Britain is now a multicultural country, its cities, London particularly, amongst the most diverse in the world. This has opened up political divides, often framed around the acceptability or otherwise of immigration. Labour’s perceived inability to control immigration emerged as a major issue in the 2010 general election. Since then, the Conservatives and UKIP have sought to capitalise on Labour’s discomfort. It was hard to mistake the importance attached to the issue by many Leave campaigners in the Brexit referendum. Election campaigns are permeated by a sense of a cultural divide between younger, more cosmopolitan and more urban voters, and older voters who feel (to borrow a phrase commonly invoked) ‘left behind’. Nor is it just immigration that seems to be at stake here. Issues of women’s rights, of sexuality and gender identity seem to increasingly shape political allegiance. The rise of the Scottish National Party, and the increased importance of devolved politics in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have complicated traditional party loyalties, to Labour’s particular disadvantage.
More than one politician has been wrong-footed in trying to take the measure of these changes, and it is difficult to say what is yet to come. Politics is always about adaptation; political success depends on reading the situation right and adjusting strategies accordingly. The ‘Brexit’ Referendum result has been widely interpreted as a sign that the leadership of Britain’s major political parties had failed to respond to growing dissatisfaction amongst older, less well-off and less well-educated voters with the country’s direction of travel. By contrast, in 2017, Jeremy Corbyn’s surprisingly effective Labour election campaign was targeted towards the aspiration of younger voters, who responded to a message of hope and change. Political fortunes are fickle, but looking at some of the underlying trends can help us make sense of these results. Concentrating on the ‘education gap’, we will first look at some of the figures in more detail, then think about some of the reasons for this gap; and finally consider some of its implications.