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The student vote: does it matter in 2019? Which seats could it affect? How is Corbyn faring among students?

  • 28 October 2019
  • By Nick Hillman

There is a lot of nonsense talked about the voting power of students. HEPI has been tracking students’ political views and their potential electoral power closely since before the last-but-one general election. Here are some of the things we have learnt.

  1. There are some seats where students are thought to have made a particular difference. Brighton Pavilion, where the Greens have their only MP, is probably one. Bath is probably another: after Ben Howlett became the Conservative MP for Bath in 2015, he claimed to represent more students than any other Conservative MP, but it didn’t last long as the seat went back to the Lib Dems in 2017. I have felt the power of the student vote, having stood in a university city, Cambridge, at the 2010 general election. Nick Clegg signed the NUS pledge against tuition fees there and, on election day, the Lib Dems triumphed. The gap between the first placed candidate, Julian Huppert, and the second placed one (me) was big but it was still much smaller than the number of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin students in the constituency. The gap was also smaller between the first placed candidate and the third placed one, Daniel Zeichner, who went on to become the MP for Cambridge in 2015, when many students backed Labour. Taking a longer historical sweep proves the point: Cambridge was a safe Conservative seat for much of the twentieth century. Students got the right to vote in their place of study in the mid-1970s (a few years after the minimum voting age fell from 21 to 18) and the Conservative vote share in Cambridge then fell in every general election from 1979 to 2005.
  2. Term dates may matter. People often wonder why it was that Canterbury, which had seemingly been a rock-solid Conservative seat forever, went Labour in 2017 against general expectations. There was a 9.3% swing from the Conservatives to Labour and the Labour vote share not far off doubled, from 24.5% to 45.0%, meaning Julian Brazier, who had been in post since 1987, lost out to Labour’s Rosie Duffield. A 2017 Guardian article on the change in Canterbury quoted someone saying, ‘The difference between 2015 and 2017 was Brexit and Trump’. But it seems unlikely that Brexit and Trump affected Canterbury much more than elsewhere. Almost certainly more important was the structure of the academic year at the University of Kent. This meant the 2015 election was held on 7 May, a few days before Kent students arrived to start the new term; in 2017, in contrast, the election was on 8 June, more than a week before the end of term. This suggests an election on 12 December could conceivably be good news for Labour’s Canterbury branch, as Kent’s term doesn’t finish until the day afterwards; on the other hand, some students may drift off beforehand and her majority last time was only 187. (Even in 2017, the Conservatives’ votes went up as did their vote share, just by not as much as Labour nor by enough to hold off their challenge.) So the Lib Dem / SNP idea of an even earlier election, on 9 December instead, could be better for Labour in Canterbury. David Kernohan of Wonkhe has usefully looked in detail at when the current term ends at different universities and how this could relate to an election.
  3. Electoral registration matters. You have to be on the electoral register to vote. In some ways, it is easier to get on the register than it used to be but the shift from household registration to individual registration had big consequences for students and it can still take an effort to get registered. Students may register to vote in more than one place, at their holiday address and their term-time address. (As a result, the most politically motivated students tend to try and work out where their vote is likely to make the biggest difference and, if necessary, organise a postal vote or travel to vote in person on election day. But such people have only ever been a tiny minority of all students.) Sometimes people complain about students voting twice, though there is little evidence of this and, for local elections, it is often legal to do this anyway, so long as their two address are in different areas. A Government website says: ‘If you live in 2 different local authority areas (for example because you’re a student), you may be able to vote in both areas.’ However, despite the efforts of universities, students’ unions and the obligations in the Higher Education and Research Act (2017), many students may still not be registered to vote at their term-time address. When the new individual registration system came in, meaning halls of residence couldn’t just put all their resident students on the electoral roll in one go, it was said that 99.9% of voters fell off the register in University ward in Lancaster. 
  4. Seats with the most students tend to be Labour; seats with the fewest number of students have much more mixed representation. Despite some caveats about the accuracy of the data on the number of students in each parliamentary constituency, there is a huge difference between the results in seats with very high proportions of students and seats with very low proportions of students. Of the 20 seats with the highest proportion of students, 19 were won by Labour in 2017 (up three on 2015). Of the 20 seats with the smallest proportion of students, there are MPs from seven different parties (including one party that does not take up its seats) as well as one independent. Only one of the seats (Workington) is represented by Labour, compared to six held by the DUP and three each by the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Labour’s very strong showing in seats with lots of students at recent elections could represent a high watermark or, at least, they have less room for manoeuvre to do better in these areas than their opponents. (The seats with the most and fewest students are listed below.)
  5. Student votes sometimes just stack up bigger majorities. Universities tend to be in big towns and cities and it is probably true to say that urban areas have a higher tendency to vote Labour, all other things being equal, whereas rural ones have a higher tendency to vote Conservative. So Paul Blomfield may be sitting on a stonking Labour majority of 27,748 in Sheffield Central, with 70.9% of the vote. thanks in part to students. But my guess is that, if you remove the students, it would still be red. (On the other hand, at an earlier election back in 2010, the Lib Dems came quite close to taking the seat in 2010 on the back of Cleggmania.) Similarly, the SNP have swept the board in Scotland in recent elections so it is hard to say their success in places with universities is down to the presence of students. Such factors serve as a useful reminder that the importance of the student vote can sometimes be exaggerated. For example, if a left-of-centre student who hails from a marginal constituency opts to vote for Paul Blomfield rather than to vote at their vacation address, their vote could make less difference to the result.
  6. The arguments over the introduction of £9,000 fees were too long ago to make much difference to many students. For a new student today who is aged 18, debates about £9,000 tuition fees are often old hat. When Nick Clegg was leading some of his MPs through the Aye lobby to deliver higher fees back in 2010, these students were still at primary school. With every passing year, it becomes less plausible that the legacy of the 2010 debates and protests will determine how today’s 18-year olds vote, especially when Brexit is an even bigger and much more current issue. There will still be students attracted to the Labour Party policy in England of no fees (even though the Labour / Lib Dem administration in Wales has recently introduced £9,000 fees) and also to the SNP policy of no fees in Scotland, of course. But the sort of negative ‘Liar Liar’ campaign that the National Union of Students ran in 2015 targeted at Lib Dems would be likely to land on less fertile soil today, perhaps especially now that the Lib Dems are on their third Leader since Nick Clegg.
  7. Corbyn remains relatively popular among students but Corbynmania has dissipated. Parties other than Labour would love to have the poll ratings that Labour still tend to have among students, but more than one poll this year (see here and here, for example) suggest students’ support for Jeremy Corbyn is not what it was.
  8. For the student vote to make a difference, lots of things have to happenAs hinted at above, to make a difference to the outcome in any single constituency, students must register to vote, turn out to vote, be in a marginal constituency, vote as a block rather than cancel each other out and not just support the party that would have won anyway. Although there are hundreds of thousands of student voters, their voice can easily get swamped when voters as a whole decide to give one party or another a clear mandate. Indeed, it is hard to find a single general election when the student vote determined who got the keys to Number 10. Even if the contested claim that student support for Jeremy Corbyn made a big difference at the 2017 election is true, Labour still lost (as Kay Burley famously reminded Richard Burgon MP the other day).

Seats with the most students

Seats with the fewest students

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