Protesters march during a student rally in London on November 21, 2012 against increases in tuition fees. Photograph: Getty Images.
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We must not let individual voter registration disenfranchise students

The new system could have a huge effect in student-heavy marginals. Universities, councils and others must be aware of the dangers.

At the next election, the student voice must be heard. Under this government, students have seen tuition fees tripled, EMA scrapped and record high levels of youth unemployment. Many graduates will leave university with a lot of debt and little prospect of immediate work.

But there is a risk that many students will be unable to vote because of plans to individually register voters. Individual Electoral Registration requires those who are not already on a household register, and cannot be matched with DWP data, to register individually. As a transient population, moving from their family home to a new place of study, often without contact with the benefits system or paid employment, students are a particularly susceptible group.

For many enrolling at university for the first time, registering to vote is understandably not their top priority. There’s remembering to bring all your books, registering with a new GP, the stress that naturally comes from leaving home for the first time and, perhaps most importantly, all the other distractions of freshers' week! It is often only when the general election campaign starts that students will become engaged in the choices they face. By then, it may be too late. At present, electors can only register to vote up to 11 days before polling day. Many students may be disenfranchised.

This could have a huge effect on the general election result. Many of the seats that will decide who forms the next government have large full-time student populations. In Lancaster and Fleetwood, the sitting Tory MP has a majority of just 333. There are 14,334 students in the constituency. A vast majority of them will have to register individually or will be disenfranchised. The government’s own pilot shows that 99 per cent of Lancaster University will not be on the register unless each individual signs up.

In Cardiff North, the Conservative majority is 194 and the student population is 8,268. In Manchester Withington, the current Lib Dem has a majority of 1,894, but potentially faces a student backlash, with 15,761 living in his constituency. And it’s not just coalition-held marginals that could be threatened. My colleague Paul Blomfield, MP for Sheffield Central, has a majority of 165 and the highest student population in the country of 36,335.

Many have already seen the dangers of this on the horizon. Indeed, Paul is working with his local council in Sheffield and the university to ensure as many of the students in his constituency have a chance to vote. Where possible, the University and the Electoral Registration Officer is entwining student enrolment with voter registration. In my city of Liverpool, I am convening a meeting with the university and the Ccuncil this week to put in place plans to replicate this model. 

Across the country, universities, councils and student unions should be aware of the challenges individual registration represents. If they don’t do something about it, many students may turn up at the ballot box, determined to have their say, only to be turned away.  

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

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The economic and moral case for global open borders

Few politicians are prepared to back a policy of free movement everywhere. Perhaps they should. 

Across the world, borders are being closed, not opened. In the US, Donald Trump has vowed to halve immigration to 500,000 and to cap the number of refugees at 50,000. In the UK, the Conservative government has reaffirmed its pledge to end free movement after Brexit is concluded. In Europe, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are being sued by the EU for refusing to accept a mandatory share of refugees.

Even Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has followed the rightward drift. Its general election manifesto promised to end free movement, and Corbyn recently complained of the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe”.

Among economists, however, a diametrically opposed conversation prevails. They argue that rather than limiting free movement, leaders should expand it: from Europe to the world. Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, likens the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk”.

Economists estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent. A doubling of GDP (a $78trn increase) would correspond to 23 years of growth at 3 per cent. By contrast, the International Monetary Fund estimates that permitting the entirely free movement of capital would add a mere $65bn.

The moral case for open borders is similarly persuasive. As the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman writes in his recent book Utopia for Realists: “Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history. Inequality gaps between people living in the same country are nothing in comparison to those between separated global citizenries.” An unskilled Mexican worker who migrates to the US would raise their pay by around 150 per cent; an unskilled Nigerian by more than 1,000 per cent.

In his epochal 1971 work A Theory of Justice, the American philosopher John Rawls imagined individuals behind a “veil of ignorance”, knowing nothing of their talents, their wealth or their class. It follows, he argued, that they would choose an economic system in which inequalities are permitted only if they benefit the most disadvantaged. The risk of being penalised is too great to do otherwise. By the same logic, one could argue that, ignorant of their fortunes, individuals would favour a world of open borders in which birth does not determine destiny.

Yet beyond Rawls’s “original position”, the real-world obstacles to free movement are immense. Voters worry that migrants will depress their wages, take their jobs, burden the welfare state, increase crime and commit terrorism. The problem is worsened by demagogic politicians who seek to exploit such fears.

But research shows that host countries gain, rather than lose, from immigration. Migrants are usually younger and healthier than their domestic counterparts and contribute far more in tax revenue than they claim in benefits. Rather than merely “taking” jobs, migrants and their children create them (Steve Jobs, the son of a Syrian immigrant, is one example). In the US, newcomers are only a fifth as likely to be imprisoned as the native born. A Warwick University study of migration flows between 145 countries found that immigration helped to reduce terrorism by promoting economic development.

In a world of open borders, the right to move need not be an unqualified one (the pollster Gallup found that 630 million people – 13 per cent of the global population – would migrate permanently). Under the EU’s free movement system, migrants must prove after three months that they are working (employed or self-employed), a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” (savings or a pension) to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system” – conditions that the UK, ironically, has never applied.

But so radical does the proposal sound that few politicians are prepared to give voice to it. An exception is the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who argued in 2016: “Inevitably, in this century, we will have open borders. We are seeing it in Europe already. The movement of peoples across the globe will mean that borders are almost going to become irrelevant by the end of this century, so we should be preparing for that and explaining why people move.”

At present, in a supposed era of opportunity, only 3 per cent of the global population live outside the country of their birth. As politicians contrive to ensure even fewer are able to do so, the case for free movement must be made anew.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear