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Students kicked Clegg and backed Miliband but it made little difference – and it might not help Corbyn much either

  • 15 October 2015

On Thursday, 15th October 2015, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) publishes one of the first detailed analyses of voting behaviour at the general election in Students and the 2015 general election: Did they make a difference? by Nick Hillman, HEPI’s Director.

Before the election, the National Union of Students (NUS) predicted students could affect the outcome of the general election in around 200 constituencies. HEPI itself predicted that students would ‘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.’

The new report revisits these predictions to find out exactly what happened.

  • Labour generally failed to win some constituencies with lots of students that they had been predicted to take from the Conservatives, such as Hendon and Lincoln – the predictions were based on flawed polls and there may have been a shy-Tory effect among students.
  • Labour did, however, win other seats from the Conservatives on the strength of the student vote, such as Chester and Ealing Central & Acton – together, these seats made up a key part of the 15-seat advance Labour made in England.
  • The Conservative Party and the Labour Party both took seats with a large number of students from the Liberal Democrats – however, the national picture makes it unlikely the results in these seats were down to students.
  • Liberal Democrat MPs who rebelled on £9,000 tuition fees in 2010 fared little different from those who voted in favour or abstained – before the election, they had five of the 20 seats with the highest proportion of students, but afterwards, they only had Leeds North West.
  • While the Green Party enjoyed much support from students before the election, some of this had dissipated by election day and it made little difference – students helped ensure an increase in support for Caroline Lucas MP in Brighton Pavilion and helped the Green Party candidate come second in Bristol West but there was no increase in the number of Green Party MPs.
  • In seats with a large number of student voters, individual battles mattered, as proven by the strong results achieved by Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) and Matthew Offord (Hendon) for the Conservatives and Wes Streeting (Ilford North) and Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) for Labour – as Cat Smith went on to nominate Jeremy Corbyn, her victory helped ensure he got on the ballot for Labour leader.
  • Post-election polling shows students were less motivated by student issues and more motivated by general issues of interest to the mass of the electorate than many people have assumed – this may be because students are, typically, only students for a relatively short period of their lives.
  • Many students registered online in the run-up to the election so the worst fears about the impact of the new system were not realised – however, late registration made it harder for election candidates to engage with students, as discussed in John Denham’s Foreword.
  • A higher proportion of student voters chose to vote at home rather than at their place of study than in the past – probably as a result of the change in electoral registration.
  • It is hard to discern a correlation between the proportion of full-time students and the turnout on election day but Lib Dem:Conservative battles tended to have a higher turnout than Lib Dem:Labour ones.
  • Although the student finance regime introduced in 2012 had less impact than many people predicted at the 2015 general election, it could still have a long-term electoral effect as the repayments fall due on millions of graduates – it is widely thought that Labour won the New Zealand election of 2005 after promising to abolish a real rate of interest on outstanding student loans.
  • No assessment of the role played by students in the 2015 election, even one that focuses primarily on England, is complete without a reference to Mhairi Black, who stood successfully for the SNP in Paisley and Renfrewshire South – she became the youngest MP since the Great Reform Act of 1832 while still an undergraduate at the University of Glasgow.

The behaviour of students at the 2015 general election, in terms of their likelihood to register and to vote as well as their tendency to vote differently to the rest of the population, is relevant to how they might behave in the forthcoming EU referendum too.

Nick Hillman said:

‘As everyone knows, the 2015 general election threw up an unexpected result overall. Our new study looking at the voting behaviour of students helps us understand why.

‘Students were less supportive of the Conservative Party than the electorate as a whole, which helped Labour. It is hard to see how Labour could have taken places like Chester, which they won from the Conservatives with a majority of just 93, without the relatively strong support they enjoyed among students.

‘However, in many constituencies with lots of students the Labour Party did not do anything like as well as had been predicted. In Loughborough, Nicky Morgan won half the votes and turned a marginal seat into a much safer one. It seems, overall, students are not as different to other voters as has often been supposed.

‘Liberal Democrats did badly across the board, including in student seats. It made relatively little difference whether Lib Dem standing for re-election had opposed, abstained or supported £9,000 fees.

‘At the recent Labour Party Conference, Jeremy Corbyn said improving voter registration rates among students is one of his first big campaigns. That will be good for democracy, but it may not make much difference to the Labour cause. Overall, students are not currently as electorally powerful nor as different to other voters as has generally been assumed.’

Notes for Editors

  1. In his speech to the Labour Party Conference on Tuesday, 29th September, Jeremy Corbyn said: ‘So what are our first big campaigns? I want to start with a fundamental issue about democratic rights for Britain. Just before Parliament rose for the summer the Tories sneaked out a plan to strike millions of people off the electoral register this December. A year earlier than the advice of the independent Electoral Commission. It means two million or more people could lose their right to vote. That’s 400,000 people in London. It’s 70,000 people in Glasgow. Thousands in every town and city, village and hamlet all across the country. That’s overwhelmingly students, people in insecure accommodation, and short stay private lets. We know why the Tories are doing it. They want to gerrymander next year’s Mayoral election in London by denying hundreds of thousands of Londoners their right to vote. They want to do the same for the Assembly elections in Wales. And they want to gerrymander electoral boundaries across the country. By ensuring new constituencies are decided on the basis of the missing registers when the Boundary Commission starts its work in April 2016. Conference we are going to do our best to stop them. We will highlight this issue in Parliament and outside. We will work with Labour councils across the country to get people back on the registers. And from today our Labour Party starts a nationwide campaign for all our members to work in every town and city, in every university as students start the new term, to stop the Tory gerrymander. To get people on the electoral register.’
  1. The earlier HEPI paper on the electoral impact of students, which was published in December 2014, is available at: https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Do-students-swing-elections.pdf.
  1. The Higher Education Policy Institute’s mission is to ensure that higher education policy-making is better informed by evidence and research.We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan.

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