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So did students make a difference at General Election 2024?

  • 5 July 2024

Since the general election was called, HEPI has been arguing that parliamentary constituencies with a large number of undergraduates could behave unexpectedly.

This rests on the idea that the timing of the election in early July meant many (not all) students would have moved back home for the holidays.

Furthermore, we argued this could improve the efficiency of the Labour vote. Put simply, students are more likely to vote for Labour than for any other party, and many areas with universities had large Labour majorities before yesterday’s election. So the presence of lots of student voters has sometimes merely served to boost the size of a Labour majority.

In some instances, students’ home addresses will be in more marginal seats than their term-time addresses, making the votes of these students potentially more impactful when an election occurs during a university vacation. This could help make the Labour vote more efficient when it comes to translating votes into seats.

Some people challenged this logic. Earlier this week, for example, Wonkhe said: ‘although some will tell you that student seats will be bereft of students during the summer this doesn’t strictly hold true.’

Now that the election is over, we can test the thesis. I have looked at the Labour share of the vote and the turnout (as recorded on the BBC website) in the 20 seats in England with the most students (using a list of constituencies first produced by my colleague Josh Freeman based on data from Census 2021).

The resulting pattern is very clear indeed: in these seats, the Labour vote share went down and the turnout fell. In both cases, the trend is very clear and out-of-kilter with the national picture.

  • Nationally, the Labour vote share went up slightly from around 32% to around 34% (though it stayed roughly the same in England as in 2019). But in the top 20 student seats in England, it fell by 11.5%. In one (Birmingham Ladywood), it fell by over 40%, although the Labour MP (and former Shadow Minister for Higher Education) Shabana Mahmood clung on.
  • Turnout in the top 20 student seats fell in each one. It was typically only around half of all eligible voters and was, on average, 10.4% lower than the turnout in the same seats in the (notional) 2019 results. Nationally, it is thought that turnout has fallen by less, from 67.3% to around 60%.

Although turnout fell in all top 20 student seats (though less in some seats than others), there is the odd exception against the general trends when it comes to Labour’s vote share – in York Central, Bath, the City of Durham and Newcastle Upon Tyne North, the Labour vote share went up. In a couple of other places, however, Labour not only lost vote share but also the seat: in Bristol Central to the Greens and Leicester South to an Independent.

It is possible that the disproportionate shifts in the top 20 student seats in England are not down to students, or at least not to students alone. These places may not be typical seats in other respects too – for example, they are more urban and likely more diverse. In the weeks ahead, as the smoke clears on the election, it will become easier to discern the importance of student voters at the 2024 election, so these results must remain tentative for now.

Whatever the answer, one thing remains clear: even though Labour underperformed in student-heavy seats, they were starting from a high base and continue to be completely dominant in seats with lots of students on the electoral register. They hold nearly all of them, including 17 of the top 20 – all except Bristol Central (Green), Bath (Lib Dem) and Leicester South (Independent).

As this blog was written on the morning of the night before, do please let me know if you spot any errors and I will correct them!

To read our paper on student voters at the 2019 general election, click on this link: Student voters: Did they make a difference?

Do come to our free online webinar with Unite Students on higher education applicants on Tuesday, 16 July 2024 – further details here.

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