The future of the left since 1884

A new coalition

Tackling economic insecurity will be key to winning the support Labour needs if it is to form the next government, write Jane Green and Roosmarijn de Geus


Long read

Electoral politics has created new uncertainties for political parties since the Brexit vote, and those uncertainties will only increase now that the Conservatives are set to have a new leader. For Labour, the big uncertainty remains how to secure an electoral coalition that unites north and south, young and old, graduates and non-graduates. Economic security is a big part of the answer to resolving this conundrum.

For our new report, we looked at the relationship between age, education level and economic insecurity and their relationships to attitudes and voting behaviour, using British Election Study data from 2018 and 2019. Examining economic insecurity is especially useful because a focus on income and social class misrepresents the degree to which the Conservatives have been supported by economically secure people such as older voters who happen to have working-class backgrounds, lower incomes and lower education levels. Economic security helps us understand the likely voters who went to Labour in Wakefield in the recent by-election and the voters who supported the Liberal Democrats in Tiverton and Honiton.

Britain’s older population – which tends to have lower levels of educational attainment and lower incomes – is, on average, the most economically secure group. The highest average economic insecurity exists among younger generations of non-graduates (which means women under 50 and men under 40): they are the people who have been least protected from globalisation and deindustrialisation and who are less likely to feel secure as a result of their prospects and family wealth. They are at risk of being the ‘won’t haves’ in contrast to younger graduate ‘will haves’.

We looked at the relationship between economic security and socially conservative attitudes to examine the idea of culturally conservative ‘left behind’ voters. Our research finds that overall it is not the most economically insecure who are most culturally conservative on average. Rather, it is the older, economically most secure people who are the most culturally conservative.

It has become common practice to assume that Labour lost Red Wall seats that were economically left behind and had high proportions of Leave voters, and that therefore these two components should form the basis of the party’s strategy to win the next election. Yet not all economically insecure voters are culturally conservative – and many Leave voters were economically secure. It is therefore a  mistake to project characteristics of place (Red Wall seats) onto individual voters. Importantly, we find that the people at highest risk of economic insecurity live across the country, not only in the Red Wall, and a cross-country strategy is therefore required to gain the support of these voters.

Herein lie some valuable lessons for Labour on how the party can build an electoral coalition. That coalition could bring together the ‘will haves’ (economically secure younger graduates) and the ‘won’t haves’ (economically insecure younger non-graduates) with older generations who lose their economic security or experience a loss of economic security during the current cost of living crisis.

But to build this coalition, Labour must take note of four key insights:

1. A loss of economic security could be very damaging for the Conservatives

Economic insecurity represents a range of experiences. A person becomes more economically secure because they have multiple buffers to weather storms – like savings, assets and job or income security – and fewer economic stressors and outgoings.

The worse someone’s economic insecurity, the more they are likely to vote Labour in our data, and the better someone’s economic security, the more they are likely to vote Conservative. Around two-thirds of 2019 Conservative voters felt economically secure in 2018 (a  proportion mirrored in the north west and the north east of England) whereas just over half of Labour’s 2019 voters felt economically insecure in 2018. Economically insecure voters likely drift to Labour because their values and interests align more closely with those of the party. And they are likely to have experienced the consequences of Conservative austerity politics and wider economic decline – and therefore to seek an alternative.

This suggests that a focus on someone’s economic security – not just their income but their ability to buy a home, their job security, their ability to feel financially safe and stable, their ability to keep hold of their savings and pay their bills – is extremely important for Labour. All of these things are in jeopardy now because of the current economic climate and the effects of the pandemic.

It is noteworthy that women report higher levels of economic insecurity than men, and ethnic minority communities experience higher levels of insecurity than white Britons. These are two key electoral groups for Labour and it emphasises the need for the party to take seriously their economic concerns and to identify policies that would address their experiences.

The most economically secure older voters have – in large numbers – been voting Conservative (and they are more likely to turn out to vote as well). But an appeal to the more economically insecure older voters in Britain could be one of the most obvious sources of support for the Labour party in opposition in a time of economic crisis, as well as for younger generations of both graduates and non-graduates who are now really feeling the pinch.

2. The education divide in voting behaviour is not all about values. For younger generations the education divide is also an economic divide

Since 2015, the relationship between education and age and voting behaviour in Britain has sharpened significantly. Labour is supported by more young people than older people and more graduates than non-graduates.

It is also true that our urban areas are comprised of  more young, graduate voters and those on higher incomes. Hence Labour’s vote has become more concentrated in cities, and this concentration is inefficient in Britain’s majoritarian electoral system (which is also true for the Democrats in the United States).

The education and age divide has been explained by the values-differences between graduates and nongraduates and older and younger generations. Younger graduates tend to be more liberal, pro-immigration and pro-Remain, and older non-graduates tend to be more small-c conservative, hostile to immigration and proLeave. These ‘second dimension’ or ‘culture war’ issues then purportedly act as a way to embed the support of older non-graduates for the Conservatives and may trap Labour in competition with other liberal, green, progressive parties, or offer the promise of an ever-increasing electoral base as a generation of younger graduates becomes a larger and larger electoral group.

But the education divide is also an economic divide, although only for younger generations – women under 50 and men under 40. This is because of the economic insurance enjoyed by older generations of graduates and non-graduates alike, and also because of the economic difficulties experienced by younger generations of nongraduates in particular. Our evidence comes from 2018 and the economic experiences of younger generations has very likely become much more extreme since then.

If Labour wants to appeal to younger generations, it should support their economic security. And if it wants to appeal to future Conservative voters – those younger non-graduates who are more culturally conservative or pro-Leave than younger graduates – it can do this by promising to bolster and support their economic prospects now.

There is also a stark warning here. While younger non-graduates are more economically insecure and therefore may be persuaded to support Labour, younger graduates are more economically secure, and more likely on this basis to shift their support to the Conservatives (and be less supportive of redistributive politics) in the future. Labour cannot just count on its graduate voters sticking with more progressive politics over their life course. It has to find an appeal to both the ‘won’t haves’ and also the ‘will haves’.

3. A gap between the ‘will haves’ and ‘won’t haves’ could grow – which may be extremely important for elections

A new type of economic gap may be opening up in British society. We cannot know this for sure as we cannot (yet) look back in time with sufficient confidence to know whether the ‘will haves’ and ‘won’t haves’ looked the same in past decades. And the future is partially up to policymakers.

But we know that the big economic gains of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s predominantly benefited previous generations of non-graduates, simply because non-graduates then represented the largest part of the population. And we know that the expansion of university access has replicated economic inequalities to a substantial degree. Graduates tend to come from wealthier families and enjoy subsequent income returns, potentially leaving non-graduates increasingly behind in an economy that rewards or requires a degree, that has becoming increasingly reliant on the knowledge economy, and that has seen deindustrialisation and automation reducing the supply of non-graduate secure work.

That does not have to be the case and a focus on a skills agenda would be a good way to address these issues. But if it isn’t addressed sufficiently, the growing economic gap between graduates and non-graduates could be extremely damaging in the future. Non-graduates would be economically left behind, suffer worse ‘social status’, and be in a  minority in contrast to graduates who may (eventually) benefit from greater levels of parental wealth. This could be a source of societal, economic and political polarisation to come, and is something that any policymaker with an eye on the future should be alert to.

For the left this means offering policies that will provide greater upward social mobility for young people across the board, but with a particular focus on younger non-graduates and also the proportion of younger graduates who become left behind.

A university degree is one route, but with increasing numbers going to university, divisions within this group of graduates will appear, largely depending on parental wealth but also dependent on different graduate income returns and the affordability of housing. Compared to previous generations, many younger people do not have the long-term perspective of homeownership and a  secure pension ahead of them, although younger renting graduates expect to buy homes at higher rates in our data  than younger non-graduates who are renting. A centre-left government could offer voters the security of a social safety net, but should also offer the potential of a more equitable future in order to attract younger generations and to avoid a growing economic rift based on education divides.

4. Younger generations of non-graduates are a key electoral group

Women under 50 and men under 40 who are non-graduates are particularly interesting because these  are the  individuals who are most aggrieved economically – and whose economic grievances most closely match with their cultural attitudes and concerns. It cannot be said that someone who is very economically secure but culturally conservative is hostile to immigration because of their own economic insecurity (though they may have local, regional or inter-generational economic concerns). But for younger non-graduates, concerns about immigration and hopes for Brexit could be tied to their economic worries. Moreover, these economic worries tend to be extreme. We found the highest levels of needing to borrow money for essentials, and of not being able to cover an emergency expense among younger non-graduates. And this was in 2018, before both the pandemic and the current cost of living squeeze.

These individuals are ‘cross-pressured’. On Brexit and immigration they might be pulled towards the Conservatives. On the basis of economics, they might be pulled towards Labour. The same cannot be said to be true for older economically secure voters. The latter have two reasons to currently vote Conservative: their economic security and their views on Brexit.

Importantly, the younger non-graduates we identify live in all parts of the country. While there has been much focus on where older non-graduates live and also where younger graduates live, we looked at the distribution of younger non-graduates and found high proportions in Labour constituencies in cities, in South Wales, and in a swathe of Conservative gains and also ConservativeLabour key marginals. These individuals have been more likely to be non-voters in recent elections, but that doesn’t mean they will always be. They may have turned out in relatively higher numbers in the EU referendum. And the fact that they are the economically and politically left behind means they could now be the most important group to win over.

Our research suggests that the electoral focus on the Red Wall is something of a red herring – or at least how it has been interpreted since analyst James Kanagasooriam first coined the phrase before the last election to highlight the areas of the country where the Conservative vote, based on demographics including home ownership, could have been higher. Those subsequent interpretations have hidden the fact that the group that is most strongly ‘left behind’ is made up of younger non-graduates who live across the country, not just in the Red Wall.

Economic insecurity is crucial in determining vote choice, and Labour has a chance of building a winning electoral coalition across generations – between younger non-graduates and graduates – and across the country, by focusing its attention on providing economic security in the face of a cost of living crisis. This is where Labour’s policy priorities must surely lie.

Image credit: Arthur Franklin/Unsplash

Jane Green

Jane Green is director of the Nuffield Politics Research Centre at the University of Oxford and a co-director of the British Election Study. She is co-author of Red Wall, Red Herring? Economic Insecurity and Vote Intention in Britain


Roosmarijn de Geus

Roosmarijn de Geus is lecturer in comparative politics at the University of Reading. She is co-author of Red Wall, Red Herring? Economic Insecurity and Vote Intention in Britain


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