Change is afoot in South Cambridgeshire, the parliamentary constituency that wraps around the entire western side of the famed university city.

In the past decade, the world-class research coming out of Cambridge’s colleges has driven a boom in industries such as pharmaceuticals and technology.

Residents of places like Cambourne or Great Shelford are more likely to work at drugmaker AstraZeneca or chip designer Arm, two of the multinationals that have moved into the area’s science parks, than on the farms scattered across the flat landscape. They are also likely to be graduates — about half the area’s residents have a degree, up 7.5 percentage points since 2011.

For a Conservative government that has pledged to make the UK a science superpower, the flourishing “Silicon Fen” tech scene should be good news. Electorally, however, the opposite might be true.

A growing number of political experts have noted that people with higher levels of education now appear to be rejecting the party, reversing a longstanding trend.

For MPs such as Anthony Browne, who won South Cambridgeshire for the Conservatives in 2019 with a relatively narrow 4.3 per cent majority, it is an ominous portent.

Browne is not alone. There are 25 Conservative constituencies with both a slim majority — defined as a winning margin less than or equal to 10 per cent of valid votes cast — and an increase in the proportion of degree holders among the electorate that is above the national average. Of those, 14 have a majority of 5 per cent or less.

The growth in graduates is broad-based; between 2011 and 2021, the proportion across England and Wales increased 6.6 percentage points. Younger generations that have spent more time in education are slowly replacing less educated, older voters; there is not a single UK constituency where the proportion of graduates has fallen since 2021. Across the OECD, the share of 25- to 34-year-olds with university-level education increased 21 percentage points on average between 2000 and 2021.

“The people who, bluntly, are dying every year are less well educated and lean conservative. The people who join the electorate are better educated and lean liberal,” says Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester.

Centre-left parties in other western nations, such as the US and France, have also cultivated support bases among more educated groups, suggesting that the UK experience is more than just a reaction to the rising unpopularity of recent Conservative administrations.

This sorting among the electorate has been in both directions: the Conservatives have secured the support in recent elections of a higher number of voters without a university education. But given that there are more graduates among the electorate, if the tendency for them to be more likely to back leftwing parties is sustained, the political landscape across Europe and the US could shift leftward.

“As the years move on we get a bunch of people dying out, and they are replaced by a bunch of people for whom the modal [average] is probably a graduate,” says Ben Ansell, a researcher at Oxford university’s Nuffield College. “Education is our new political divide.”

Disrupting old patterns

It wasn’t always this way. Historically, higher levels of education have correlated with higher lifetime wages and a higher likelihood of voting for political parties that advocate lower taxes, rather than those that favour economic redistribution.

According to Ansell’s analysis of the British Election Study surveys, Britons in the 1960s with A-levels — the highest qualification for school-leavers in much of the country — were 10 percentage points more likely to vote Conservative than their peers. If they went to university, the likelihood of voting Conservative was about 20 percentage points greater.

But since the 1990s, the reverse has become true. Ansell’s analysis showed that in 2015, people with degrees were 2.3 percentage points less likely to support the Conservatives than the national average. The gap widened further in the subsequent two elections, to 16.7 percentage points in 2019.

For people without degrees, the trend was a mirror image. In 2015, non-graduates were 0.7 percentage points more likely to support the Conservatives. By 2019 that gap had swelled to 7.7 percentage points.

It is a separate relationship to age — although that has long been a predictor of voting intentions and there is now a greater proportion of graduates among the young. In 2019, YouGov estimated the chance of someone voting Conservative increased by nine points with every 10 years of someone’s life.

But Ansell’s analysis of survey results from October showed the sole group of over-50s in which more people supported the Conservatives than Labour were those with only secondary school qualifications. Among older people with tertiary education, a higher proportion of people supported the centre-left Labour party — five percentage points more among undergraduates and 12 percentage points more among postgraduates.

“The Conservatives didn’t have a young people problem, they had a degree-holder problem — there are just way more degree holders among the young,” Ansell says.

Lindsay Paterson, professor of education at the University of Edinburgh, adds that the “typical graduate” calls themselves leftwing, while the “typical non-graduate” calls themselves Conservative.

Society, not economy

The argument that university education is a new political faultline is gaining traction. In his book Capital and Ideology, the leftwing political theorist Thomas Piketty argues that modern electoral politics across western democracies had become a battle between the “merchant right” — that is, wealthy conservative voters — and the highly educated “Brahmin left”, a reference to groups that wield cultural and social power.

This has turned elections into arguments about social issues. Leftwing parties have largely stopped fighting for wealth distribution and the economic interests of people on lower incomes and instead become associated with social liberalism. The right has become more associated with social conservatism, Piketty says.

Browne, the South Cambridgeshire MP, speculates that a leftward shift in academia, the privileged distance from the impact of migration and “wider horizons” conferred by education or travel could be behind the growing antipathy of graduates to his party.

“They get a certain superficial knowledge about the rest of the world and they start to think [the UK] is a terrible place, and they get revolutionary and start voting Labour,” he says.

Ralph Scott, a Cardiff University researcher, says a “robust weight of evidence” still suggests graduates are still more economically rightwing than the wider electorate, an effect he believes is due to the wage boost that having a degree tends to bring.

But in a working paper based on the British Election Study internet panel, Scott found an opposing trend: more recent or current students became more economically leftwing during and after their studies.

Scott notes the paper has not yet been peer reviewed and does not address the possibility that young graduates would become more Conservative with age. But he says a shift could be fuelled by changes in the labour market following a big expansion of higher education, with almost two-fifths of 18-year-olds going to university in 2021. Students, once overwhelmingly middle class, are now drawn from a wider range of social backgrounds.

“The graduate [wage] premium is now less than it was, but going to university gives you a greater sense of economic possibility,” Scott says. “If you’re from a less privileged background, you might feel the economic opportunity is there, but not for you. It might develop a sense of economic unfairness.”

But doctoral researcher Elizabeth Simon asserts that the link between higher education and voting habits is “largely spurious”. Her analysis found that when it came to political views, family backgrounds were far more relevant than attending university. They were what made people both more likely to go to university and more liberal.

Lord David Willetts, who as universities minister in a Conservative-led coalition government was instrumental in expanding access to higher education – but also making it more expensive for students – believes intergenerational inequality, not academic attainment, is the real faultline.

“The Tory problem is with young people as a whole and is related to the failure to deliver the classic promise of modern capitalism — that economic advance should mean that each generation is better off than the one before,” he says. “It is so much harder for [young people] to earn a good income or get started on the housing ladder, be they grads or non-grads.”

Age remains a political force, but the left effect is no longer the preserve of the youngest voters. Unlike previous generations, millennials — of whom the oldest are now around 40 — are not getting more conservative as they age, according to an FT analysis of British Election Study surveys.

These trends, along with a growing body of data on voting, suggest factors such as age, race, income and formative experiences of recession and political turmoil are mixing with education to create new political constituencies, says Ford at the University of Manchester. “We’re in a period where new and old divides are interacting.”

One might expect politicians to be paying attention. But courting graduates does not appear to be a priority. The Conservatives won an 80-seat majority at the 2019 election by appealing to the so-called red wall — traditionally Labour-voting, mainly working-class areas with high support for Brexit.

“It was a coalition built on the median Brit — not a degree holder, increasingly old, living outside the major urban areas, and with median incomes,” says Ansell.

The Conservatives need to retain those seats to stay in power. Labour needs to capture them. For that reason, Ford says “neither party sees appealing to socially liberal degree holders as a priority” for the next election, which is likely to take place in 2024. He cites noisy rhetoric from the government about migrants arriving in small boats or transgender rights that clearly antagonise liberal voters.

But if older, less educated, and socially conservative voters will determine the next election, their influence on subsequent polls may be lower. Ford’s calculations show that for every year that passes, the proportion of people with no qualifications drops by 1 percentage point and the number with degrees rises 0.7 percentage points.

“That’s demographics — it’s slow but it’s relentless and cumulatively it’s massive,” says Ford.

The potential effects

In the UK’s first-past-the-post system of voting, age matters at constituency level. In the 2019 election, Labour won 88 seats in which over a quarter of the population was aged between 18 and 34. The Conservatives won just 16 — but they took 65 seats where more than a quarter of the population was 65 or older. Labour won two.

The same was true of education. Areas with higher proportions of degree holders were more likely to experience a fall in Conservative vote share than those with lower proportions of graduates.

“A lot of very safe Conservative places with high levels of graduates have been drifting away [from the party],” Ford says. “It’s been really evident in every local election cycle.”

Several of these key constituencies are in London suburbs and include Chingford, where former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith has a majority of 2.6 per cent and the proportion of people with degrees has risen 10.5 percentage points since 2011.

Outside of London, there have been large increases in the proportion of degree holders in both constituencies in West Bromwich along with Birmingham Northfield, all in the West Midlands — and in South Cambridgeshire.

On the busy road leading to Browne’s constituency office, new towns housing thousands of people have sprung up. Their residents’ concerns are the same as many in the country: living costs and poor public services. Additionally, three-fifths of the South Cambridgeshire electorate voted to remain in the EU.

At an informal meeting in Cambourne’s Belfry Hotel, arranged for the FT by Conservative councillor Shrobona Bhattahcharya, constituents expressed diverse opinions.

Akhila Jayaram, a PhD student at the university, is impressed by the government’s creation of a Department for Science Innovation and Technology. Sujit Bhattarcharya, the head of a local tech company, will vote Conservative in part because he supports wider use of selective secondary education.

But Alexander Blair, who is from the area but is studying for a masters degree in Leeds, says he “really dislikes” the party. “Boris [Johnson] spouted a load of rubbish and caused most of the country to vote for Brexit, which has impacted the cost of living. Brexit has made everything worse,” he says. “[Tories] have neglected students. They have neglected a lot of poor people, of lower-class people.”

At the Monkfield Arms pub in the centre of Cambourne, it is clear the Conservatives have problems beyond disgruntled graduates. Few gathered in the crowded bar had any sympathy for the government. Kitchen assistant Philippa Humphrey, 34, is frustrated at the absence of activities for children and long waits at pharmacies and GP surgeries. “They’re a pack of selfish bastards,” she says of the government.

“People haven’t got a pot to piss in,” adds Simon Walker, a local businessman. He will vote for the party that offers the best green policies for his insulated cladding firm, but doesn’t think it will be the Conservatives. “I used to like them, but their disregard for the common person is embarrassing.”

Browne, a Brexit supporter, believes he can retain the constituency, whose boundaries are set to be redrawn, at the next election. “Sensible” voters can be won over by Sunak’s competence, he says.

However Pippa Heylings, a local Liberal Democrat councillor who plans to stand against Browne, thinks voters will be swayed by more material concerns. As the booming knowledge economy pushes up house prices, public sector workers and even many working in multinational firms find themselves priced out. “They cannot believe that after seven years of education . . . they can’t afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment.”

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