education and political party support in the UK

A common pattern in the 21st century involves much of the working class shifting from a broad center-left political party toward the right.

One way to measure class is by educational attainment. In Germany, the Social Democrats have lost much of the working class to the right, and the highly educated professions have migrated to the Greens. In the US, where third parties have a much harder time, highly educated people are unlikely to exit the two big parties. Instead, they use their effective voices to dominate at least one party. Recently, the most educated groups have voted Democratic. At one point during the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton led college-educated whites by 5 points, but she trailed Trump among whites who don’t have college degrees by 39 points: 62% to 23%. Democrats would be in big trouble except that race is at least as important as class in the USA, and people of color of all educational backgrounds also tend to vote for Democrats.

What about the UK? Much has been written about the demographics of voters in the recent British elections, but I also like a time-series from the European Social Survey that asks which party people feel “closest” to. This question is asked regularly in even years. It gives you a trend that’s less tied to candidates and specific campaigns.

Above, I show support for Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats for six educational strata, from less than secondary education to doctoral degrees or the equivalent. The education question changed in 2010, so I have done my best to keep the categories consistent.

In 2002, Labour’s support correlated negatively with education; the Tories did better with people with more education. The Liberals were far behind but drew best from people with university degrees (teachers and other “knowledge workers,” I would guess).

Fr0m 2004-2008, that pattern continued, with the very important change that the Liberals battled Labour for the support of the most educated, who oscillated between those two parties.

In 2012, the classic pattern recurred, with Labour receiving smoothly declining support with educational levels. In 2014 and 2016, Labour did much better with the best educated. In 2018, the most educated voters essentially shifted to the Liberals.

Based on what we know from constituencies’ demographics, it seems that since 2018, many working class English voters switched from Labour to the Tories or stayed home.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.