UU professor analyses the voting behaviour of the Dutch

Highly educated young men shift to the right

Marcel Lubbers. Foto: Cathy van Schaik - Beeldboot
Marcel Lubbers, Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Science at UU. Photos by Cathy van Schaik, Beeldboot

In the run-up to the European elections, DUB talked to three scientists about societal topics that play a role in the polls. In the first article, Associate Professor Ilse van Liempt, a Migration and Societal Change researcher, talked about her study on migration deals within the EU. In the second article, Criminologist Daan van Uhm told us about his fight to get crimes against the environment convicted through criminal law. In this third and final article, we interview Marcel Lubbers, Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Science.  

More Dutch citizens voted for a radical right-wing party in last year's parliamentary elections than in the previous ones, which happened in 2021. Election results from the past 20 years show a clear growth of the nationalist far-right. Marcel Lubbers, Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Science at Utrecht University and coordinator of the National Voter Research Foundation, studies how trends and changes in voting behaviour in the Netherlands since 1971. Young people (those aged between 18 and 30 years old) are among the demographics analysed. Lubbers identifies several striking trends: “People have been more and more interested in populist parties, especially young men. For the first time since the 1990s, far-right parties are more popular among young men than the progressive left. However, young women are moving left.” 

With 35 percent of the votes, far-right parties did slightly better among young men in 2023 compared to left-wing progressive parties, who received 33 percent of the votes. Among young women, these percentages are 22 and 45, respectively. They have grown at the expense of traditional centrist parties and Christian parties, which received 29 and 26 percent of the votes of men aged 30 and younger, respectively. Among women in the same age bracket, these percentages were 25 and 30 percent. Parties VVD, NSC and CDA are the most popular ones in this category.

“Young men have been placing themselves on the right end of the political spectrum more and more,” says Lubbers. “They tend to be more conservative in their attitudes and voting habits than young women. This trend started in the 1970s, but we see clear differences between then and now."

“In the 1960s, a progressive movement emerged among young people in the Netherlands. They overwhelmingly voted for the progressive left, especially young men. This changed from the 1980s onwards. Progressive development is stagnating among young men. Since the advent of populist parties some 30 years ago, young men have become more and more likely to vote for far-right parties. As for young women, they have become less and less conservative and Christian since the 1970s. The tendency to vote for left-wing parties has been steady among them. Since 2012, women have been voting more progressively than young men, which doesn’t mean that populist parties aren’t becoming more popular with young women as well, but young women are still more likely to vote for left-wing and progressive parties than for radical right-wing ones.”

Marcel Lubbers. Foto: Cathy van Schaik - Beeldboot

Highly-educated people tend to be left-wing
Education is one of the explanations for this phenomenon. Research shows that people with a higher education degree are more likely to choose a left-wing party, while people who received less education or who have a practical diploma are more likely to vote for right-wing parties. Although there is a group of highly educated young men who vote for the far-right, it is much smaller than the group of highly educated young men voting for left-wing parties. The same applies to women.

“In addition, women's education level has risen much faster than that of men,” explains Lubbers. “If we look at the student population in the Netherlands, but also in other European countries, we see that more women go to university than men. This is actually a worldwide phenomenon. The increase in access to higher education among women explains why they are now more likely to vote for left-wing parties than men.” 

But education is not the only factor. The voter survey shows that concerns about the climate, increasing polarisation and decreasing tolerance in society are decisive for left-wing voters, especially women. These concerns are echoed by progressive left-wing parties.

The climate is also important for far-right voters, but, in their case, it takes the form of climate change scepticism. This group also tends to feel threatened by migration, the European Union and far-reaching progressive developments. “Identity questions also play a role for young men,” explains Lubbers. “The rise of far-right parties goes hand in hand with men's current position in our society. To what extent is their position threatened by change? In our research, we see that men are more likely to have a problems with so-called ‘woke' issues such as women's emancipation and LGBTQ+ rights. There is a clear group among young men that longs for a society with more traditional values, where men play a dominant position.”

Lubbers emphasises that these are trends. “It doesn’t mean that everyone in the group has the same voting behaviour. Not all young men have become more conservative and not all young women have become more progressive. We've identified an increase, but not clear majorities. Things are nuanced, which makes it complicated, but you can clearly see a shift among young people. Perhaps that's why the differences that arise as a result are so visible in society.”

The international project Comparative Study of Electoral Systems shows that the trends Lubbers and his colleagues have identified among Dutch voters mirror those in other European countries. “Northern and Southern Europe stand out when it comes to this trend,” Lubbers explains. “So, in these European elections, I believe that young men will overwhelmingly vote for nationalist, far-right parties while young women will vote for progressive, left-wing parties. This does not necessarily mean that anti-European parties will win. Far-right parties may have grown, but they are still far from having a majority. There is still plenty of dissent.” 

The professor adds that there is always a question mark surrounding who will show up to the European elections. “In the Dutch parliamentary elections, an average of 80 percent of the voters go to the polls. In the European elections, however, only half of them do. The percentage is even lower among young people: less than 40 percent. It matters who shows up. We see that far-right voters attribute a great extent of the success or failure of their national policies to the European Union. It is not unlikely that the EU will be seen as an entity that frustrates national policies, now more than ever. It’s interesting to see how that sentiment will translate into the upcoming elections. Time will tell. The final say is up to the voters.”