The slow but inexorable pace of social change sometimes leaves political parties stranded. One hundred years ago on Wednesday, Labour won more seats than the Liberals in the general election, and six weeks later Ramsay MacDonald formed the first Labour government after negotiations in a hung parliament.
The Liberal party had seen the organised working class coming, but had failed to do enough to accommodate it.
Today, the Conservative Party has noticed the rise in the proportion of graduates in the electorate, and it doesn’t like it. But it won the last election on the votes of non-graduate Leavers, so it cannot decide what to do to secure its future in a country that is changing.
Professor Rob Ford of the University of Manchester presented new research at the Social Market Foundation this week on how education has become the new divide in British politics. Since the 2015 general election and the 2016 referendum, graduates have become more Labour and more pro-EU, while non-graduates have become more Tory and anti-EU. And all the time, there are more graduates in the population, up from one-fifth to one-third in the past two decades – a share that will go on rising for 40-50 years, Prof Ford said, even if, as some Tories belatedly wish, the expansion of universities is thrown into reverse.
Professor Ford said: “Demographic change is alien to political analysis because it is slow and relentless, like a glacier.” It is a wall of ice that threatens the Conservatives in addition to all the short-term pressures on government at a time of pinched living standards.
He thought that the immediate causes of unpopularity had distracted the Tories from underlying adverse changes. They mean that the playing field is tilting against the Tories all the time. They mean that when we observe that Boris Johnson won in 2019 because of Brexit deadlock, Jeremy Corbyn and Johnson’s own positive appeal, and that none of those will apply next time, there is a fourth change, which is that the electorate has become slightly more pro-Labour and more pro-EU.
The pace of change is slow but significant. The effect is that a rerun EU referendum now would be 54-46 per cent for Remain, if graduates and non-graduates voted as they did seven years ago.
Not only does this mean that the main Conservative-Labour battleground is more forbidding for Sunak, but there are large chunks of the Tory vote last time that could break off and fall suddenly into the sea.
Professor Ford is particularly interested in the 40 most graduate-heavy seats that the Tories have to defend to remain in office. They include “a huge swathe around London, where the Liberal Democrats are the challenger, which could form a Lib Dem graduate heartland”.
Just because well-known Conservatives such as Dominic Raab in Esher defied predictions that their seats were vulnerable last time does not mean that they are safe. Next time, the graduate shift makes it even more likely that the dominoes will fall. No wonder Raab is not standing again.
Professor Ford compared Tory complacency about its southern seats to the Labour Party’s lack of awareness of the threat to it of Scotland in 2015 and in the red wall in 2019 – “‘Those seats will never go,’ until they do”.
There is worse to come from the Social Market Foundation analysis. While the Tories risk losing a chunk of their graduate vote to the Lib Dems, their non-graduate core vote is also under threat, from the opposite direction. Reform UK, formerly the Brexit Party, the company set up by Nigel Farage and still majority-owned by him, as Tom McTague of UnHerd points out, is doing well in the opinion polls. About 8 per cent of people say they intend to vote for it, despite minimal coverage in the mainstream media.
One of Farage’s reasons for going on I’m a Celebrity was to promote himself with a view to playing a role in the coming election. His party, currently led by Richard Tice, has belatedly accepted the error of its rebranding by applying to be listed on election ballot papers as “Reform UK: The Brexit Party”.
Who knows what mayhem Farage and Tice can wreak with an anti-immigration, “Brexit was done all wrong” message, standing in Tory seats where its candidates were stood down last time. Whereas, once upon a time in the Ukip years, Farage attracted votes from Labour and Tory supporters alike, the graduate shift means that his support comes now overwhelmingly from disaffected Tories.
Which means that the Tories are retreating on three fronts at once. Nationally, they are being pushed back by a resurgent Labour Party, which now looks like a moderate and competent alternative, with a graduate voting base and strong bridges to socially conservative non-graduates whose main concern is the cost of living.
“It is not possible for either party to build an election-winning coalition without bridging the divide,” said Professor Ford. At the last election, Johnson did it. This time, Starmer is doing it.
At the same time, the Tories are vulnerable to the Lib Dems in those Home Counties seats around London. And on top of all that, their core vote is being eaten away by Farage’s party, as capable of mobilising anti-immigration votes as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Donald Trump in the US.
That is why Professor Ford said that a Canada 1993 scenario – the Tory party there went from governing with a majority to just two seats – was “a real, under-discussed possibility” at the next UK election.