“Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people.” Tony Blair 2001
What Tony Blair said back in 2001 wasn’t just morally right it was also pragmatic. The reality is that the better educated people are the more likely they are to vote Labour:
Behind where the Red Wall once stood are voters who are in significant numbers in the “Low” Educational category in the above graph – and who now now overwhelmingly vote Conservative.
Warning: These are aggregate figures showing general trends. A quarter of “Low” education level voters chose Labour in 2019 and a little more than a quarter of Graduates chose the Conservatives. But the general trend is clear.
So when Blair made his education commitment in 2001 he knew what he was doing. A better educated population is a more liberal population and is more likely to be Labour (or LibDem) voting. The reverse of this is also true. The “Leave” campaign knew who there target was in 2016 and the result confirmed that they were right:
Brexit-loving Hartlepool, now famous for embracing the Conservatives so enthusiastically, has 19% of voters with a degree. In my home town of leafy Twickenham, a rather liberal sort of place in every way, 52% of us are graduates.
Now look at the graph at the top of this Blog. The expenditure on education took a downturn both in its level and as a percentage of total government expenditure in 2010 – the year of the beginning of Conservative rule after the Blair/Brown years. Most notably university tuition fees (introduced in England at a modest level by the Labour government) were tripled by the Cameron government .
At the risk of being charged with elitism, and conscious of the dangers of generalisation, it seems clear to me that there is a clear correlation between education and political choice. This is surely the explanation for the reductio ad absurdum of much political communication.
Political issues are complex, not least Britain’s membership of the European Union at the time of the referendum. The “Leave” campaign was characterised by simplistic and binary communication and Boris Johnson both indulged in this at the time and continued when he took office. His appeal was not cerebral but an appeal to the gut, above all to patriotism.
Which brings us to “levelling up”. There is no greater driver of upward mobility than education. The Education Act of 1944 has been called a “triumph for progressive reform,” and it became a core element of the post-war consensus on education supported by both Labour and the (One Nation) Conservatives in power over these years. Blair certainly embraced the principles of this consensus and put money where his mouth was.
So where are we today? The Conservatives are in power and we are out of the European Union largely because the least well-educated of our society voted for just that.
The 2021 budget has been described as a “missed opportunity” for education after it failed to provide additional cash for schools. Government spending on tertiary education in the United Kingdom in the current year was the lowest amount spent by a UK government on higher education since 2009.
Do I charge that Conservative governments are following a self-interested “Keep them in the dark and feed them bullshit” policy on education? Well 65% of Boris Johnson’s Cabinet attended independent schools compared with 7% for the population at large. I doubt that any of them would choose “The benefits of levelling up in education” as their special subject on “Mastermind” – not least because their seats in Parliament might be at risk if they actually did it.