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Students could tip the balance of power at the 2015 election – so long as they register to vote

  • 1 December 2014

HEPI published a detailed study on the electoral power of full-time students, Do students swing elections? Registration, turnout and voting behaviour among full-time students, on the morning of 1st December 2014 – the deadline for the first electoral roll under Individual Electoral Registration.

Based on new analysis by Professor Stephen Fisher of Trinity College, Oxford, the research confirms that the student vote responds to political parties’ policies on tuition fees. The student vote swung towards the Liberal Democrats in 2001, 2005 and 2010 and is set to swing towards Labour at the 2015 election. This could affect the result in around 10 seats.

Students could tip the balance of power in 2015 because of the close opinion polls, a fall in student support for the Liberal Democrats and UKIP’s relative lack of success among students. Since the last election, the student vote has moved towards the Greens as well as Labour. The chances of the Green Party retaining their one seat or even managing to win a second seat, seems likely to depend upon how students vote.

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI and co-author of the report, said:

‘Our new analysis suggests students’ votes are swayed by student issues, particularly university funding. But for students to make a difference, they must register to vote, turn out to vote and live in marginal constituencies.

‘The likelihood is that these factors will determine the outcome in only around ten constituencies. But, if the opinion polls are a guide to the next election, then students could just swing the overall result and hold the keys to power.

‘However, the shift to Individual Electoral Registration threatens the influence of students because it does not match their lives well. Some universities have worked hard, in conjunction with their local authorities, to ensure students are registered to vote. Others have done less.

‘Students have as much right to be on the electoral roll as everyone else and it would be a tragedy if the new registration system weakened their voice to a whisper.’

Professor Stephen Fisher said:

‘It is remarkable the extent to which changes in the student vote at elections since 1997 reflect changes in the perceived generosity of party policy for all three main Westminster parties. But if anything, the student vote seems to have reacted more strongly to apparent breaches of promise.

‘Support for Labour among students dropped dramatically in 2005 after they were seen to go back on their 2001 manifesto promise not to introduce “top-up” fees. Similarly, Liberal Democrat support for tuition fees while in government despite pre-election pledges to vote against them seems to have led to an even greater fall in the Lib Dem student vote than for Britain as a whole. This has been witnessed in surveys since 2010 and also in the European Parliament election results this year.

‘If maintained to next year’s general election, the Liberal Democrats are likely to do noticeably worse in constituencies with large numbers of student voters.

Key points:

  • Students swung towards the Liberal Democrats at the 2001, 2005 and 2010 elections but have since swung towards Labour and the Green Party, according to polling data and the 2014 European Parliament elections.
    • In 1997, students voted Labour in similar proportions to others, but in 2001 students swung disproportionately to the Liberal Democrats, probably being decisive in winning them Guildford and making other seats more marginal.
    • In 2005, there was a further swing to the Liberal Democrats in seats with many students, delivering them Manchester Withington and Leeds North-West.
    • In 2010, the Liberal Democrats improved their performance again: students were more likely to support them than any other party.
  • The British Election Study Internet Panel Survey shows a more recent collapse in Liberal Democrat support among students, from 44 per cent in 2010 to 13 per cent in 2014. Students are more likely to vote for the Labour Party than for any other party and Labour are more popular among students than among the rest of the population.
  • Students are only half as likely to support UKIP as the rest of the population (7 per cent versus 15 per cent). At the 2014 European Parliament elections, students were much more likely to vote Green than UKIP (25 per cent versus 11 per cent). Although many students who voted for the Green Party intend to support Labour at the 2015 general election, students could help the Green Party retain their one Parliamentary seat of Brighton Pavilion and students are likely to be crucial in their quest to win Bristol West.
  • Many parliamentary seats with a high density of students are ‘safe’ seats, which limits their electoral power. However, at the next election, differential voting behaviour by students could alter the outcome in up to a dozen seats, mainly to the benefit of Labour and to the detriment of the Liberal Democrats. Depending on the balance of support for the main parties overall, the Conservatives might lose some seats to Labour as a result of the student vote but it may simultaneously win one or two due to a heavier fall in the Liberal Democrat vote in student areas. This could potentially:
    • deliver two seats from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives (Portsmouth South and Kingston and Surbiton);
    • deliver two seats from the Liberal Democrats to Labour (Bermondsey and Old Southwark and Bristol West); and
    • see six seats shift from the Conservatives to Labour even assuming the Conservatives recover in the polls to the point they would otherwise hold on to them with a uniform swing (Hendon, Lancaster and Fleetwood, Lincoln, Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, Brighton Kemptown and Loughborough);
  • Nick Clegg’s seat, Sheffield Hallam, has a relatively high number of students and the highest proportion of public sector workers of any constituency, potentially making the seat vulnerable to a Labour challenge.
  • The shift from household electoral registration to the new system of Individual Electoral Registration affects students more than other groups because they are highly mobile, often live at two addresses during the year and are ill-served by the transitional arrangements to the new registration system.
  • Some higher education institutions, notably Sheffield University and Manchester Metropolitan University, have linked their electronic enrolment systems to the compilation of the electoral roll. Early indications suggest this has been a successful way to reduce the impact of the change in registration. There is a need for universities to share and learn from best practice because the shift to individual electoral registration brings permanent challenges.