Ahead of the General Election in May, Freshwater’s public affairs team analyses the significance of the student vote…
At the recent launch of their election manifesto, the NUS had some good news to galvanise student voters. The manifesto identified 191 seats across the UK in which the student vote could swing the result; student voters could therefore play a pivotal role in deciding the make-up of the next government.
For example, in 2010, North Warwickshire swung from Labour to the Conservatives by a wafer-thin majority of just 54 votes. Home to students of both the University of Warwick and Coventry University, the constituency is one of many that is both hanging on a knife edge and home to a significant student population.
Students also have a role to play in some of the more high-profile contests. Brighton Pavilion, where Caroline Lucas is seeking to retain her seat for the Greens, is home to the University of Sussex - one of the most political student bodies in the country. Students were influential in returning Caroline Lucas as the Green Party’s first MP in 2010, and will be again in May.
In Cardiff Central, Labour challenger Jo Stevens is making a big push for the student vote to win the seat from Liberal Democrat incumbent Jenny Willott, who could be punished for what many students perceive as her party’s tuition fees treachery.
Sheffield Hallam’s Liberal Democrat incumbent held the seat with a majority of 15,284 votes in 2010. But the fact that Nick Clegg is that incumbent makes the picture look rather different. Aggrieved students from both of Sheffield’s universities might come to the ballot box looking for Clegg’s head. Those observers hoping for a new Portillo moment might not be disappointed – the Lib Dems are already fighting tooth and nail in the constituency, but a recent Ashcroft poll there gave Labour a three-point lead.
Though student voters are unlikely to be able to swing any seats entirely on their own, the evidence suggests that they may nonetheless play a crucial role in May. How then, in the run-up to the election, is each party attempting to woo student voters in these marginal university constituencies?
The Greens will be looking to tap into the same anti-establishment sentiment that drew students to the Lib Dems in 2010. In this regard the Greens’ rejection of austerity is important: many students have been marching against cuts since 2010.
For their part, the Lib Dems will try to remind young voters of their track record on civil liberties and social justice. Add some drug policy reform and overtures on improving mental health care, and the Lib Dems may be able to soften a little of the impact of Nick Clegg’s tuition fees U-turn.
Labour has tried to be eye-catching by mooting a reduction of university tuition fees to £6,000, but with the Lib Dems in mind, has so far sagely avoided making a genuine policy commitment. As a result the offer is not as eye-catching as Labour might like, and they may struggle to push the ‘austerity-but-not’ line to students.
As usual, the Conservatives are comparatively uninterested in students and students are comparatively uninterested in voting for the Conservatives. Nonetheless, a YouGov poll in December showed the Conservatives as having 22% support amongst 16-24 year olds. In very marginal university seats, the Conservatives would do well to remember the students. Reminding them about George Osborne’s £10,000 postgraduate student loans might turn a few heads.
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