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9 January 2017updated 06 Aug 2021 5:51pm

Want to know how someone votes? Start by asking if they went to university

The past few years have been excellent for graduates and terrible for unskilled school-leavers. It's no wonder they have different feelings about the political status quo.

By Robert Ford

As we consider last year’s electoral disruption, one theme keeps repeating: education, education, education. In the 2015 general election, the Brexit referendum, the 2016 US presidential election, the 2016 Austrian presidential election and others, the political fight that mattered didn’t begin at the factory gate or the office entrance. It began at the gates to campus. University graduates lined up behind Miliband, Clinton, Van der Bellen and the European Union. Those with few or no formal educational credentials lined up behind Farage, Trump, Hofer and Brexit.

Economic change has played a role in opening up this educational divide. The demand for skilled, professional brain-work in sectors such as information technology, health and financial services has risen steadily even as globalisation and automation have sharply curtailed opportunities for the least skilled. The past three decades have been terrific for university graduates and terrible for unskilled school-leavers. So, it is no surprise if the former gravitate towards the status quo while the latter are attracted by radical alternatives.

But this is not solely, or even mainly, a division along lines of economic interest. There has also been a steady divergence in the political demands that non-graduates and graduates make of the left. Non-graduates have endured decades of declining security and social status, stagnation in incomes and growing pessimism about prospects. This has been a world where, as the Labour peer Maurice Glasman recently observed, “Things don’t only get better.” They have looked to the left for protection: protection of jobs, of communities, of dignity, security and autonomy.

The rising graduate class has a different agenda. Secure and optimistic, graduates see the left as a vehicle for bringing opportunity to a wider range of disadvantaged groups. Their goal is progress: on gender and racial equality, on LGBT rights and on openness to immigrants and asylum-seekers. This is a central and vital agenda for the left – but the progress agenda is undeniably different from the protection agenda, which has had fewer champions and victories of late.

The more optimistic champions of both will argue that there is no inherent conflict. The graduate and the non-graduate left share values and interests – a strong public sector, redistribution of income, economic security and opportunity for all. Yet three developments have upset the balance between the two groups and deepened the divides between them, so that the old glue can no longer bind them.

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First, the balance of power and representation has been lost. We have a political class that increasingly offers government of the graduates, by the graduates, for the graduates. Ninety per cent of MPs belong to the graduate class, and there is a similar trend in the other institutions of centre-left politics: local government, trade unions and the media. The exclusion of non-graduates damages the representation process: political institutions become slower to notice or respond to non-graduates’ concerns, and become less effective, and less credible, in articulating and representing them. A lack of diversity is well recognised by the graduate left as an argument for increasing the presence of women and ethnic minorities in politics, but the arguments apply with equal force to non-graduates or the working class.

The 2008 financial crisis further frayed the vital link between the political class and its electoral base. The bank bailouts that graduate voters accepted as a vital economic intervention were seen as an ugly stitch-up by many non-graduates – and a stitch-up by a Labour government, no less. The crisis and its aftermath radicalised the post-crash generation of “left-behind” graduates, who faced worse incomes and prospects than their predecessors. A vocal minority responded by rejecting centre-left incrementalism and demanding a bolder alternative. This has been a critical factor in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum, whose social radicalism has pulled graduate politics of the left further away from the socially conservative values and defensive priorities of the non-graduate electorate.

It is immigration, however, that has done most to burn bridges. The graduate left ­increasingly sees support for immigration as a core expression of tolerant, cosmopolitan and socially liberal values. Conversely, the non-graduate left sees immigration as a symbol of the social change it finds threatening, and the failure of politicians to respond to its concerns as an emotive example of the political marginalisation that has alienated its members.

Compromise is essential if the education gap is to be bridged, but it is hard to see how this will be achieved so long as both sides see the issue as a touchstone of their identity and core values.

Yet the left, at least, will have to seek a compromise on such matters, at least if it aspires to govern again. At present, Labour is caught in a deadly dilemma – both the graduate and the non-graduate elements of its support are too big to ignore, yet neither is big enough to deliver power on its own. University graduates are essential to Labour’s electoral prospects in big cities, and wield tremendous influence in the institutions of organised left-wing politics. But non-graduates dominate the core Labour electorate in even more seats, and the Brexit vote has given them an intoxicating taste of the power that mass rebellion can bring.

When social change brings new groups into conflict, the result can be a profound reorientation of party politics. Industrialisation and the mass franchise ushered in the era of class-based politics that brought Labour to power. Globalisation, immigration and diversity could have a similarly disruptive effect, reorienting the fundamental conflict away from class and towards education. It is too soon to tell what final form this will take. Perhaps the Liberals/Lib Dems, displaced by Labour three generations ago, will finally get their revenge, taking over as the party of progressive graduates. Perhaps Ukip will grow to prominence as the party of non-graduates – similar parties elsewhere in Europe frequently win double Ukip’s vote share, and this segment of the electorate voted to leave the EU by huge margins, in defiance of the graduate-dominated establishment. A political agenda dominated by Brexit, immigration, resurgent English nationalism and a crisis of trust in established institutions certainly makes such a realignment more likely.

If the tectonic plates of politics do shift, it is Labour – weakened by internal conflict and unable to stake out a credible position on either side of the education divide – that looks most likely to be a casualty.

Robert Ford is a professor at the University of Manchester and a co-author of “Revolt on the Right” (Routledge)

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This article appears in the 04 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain