Protesters march during a student rally in London on November 21, 2012 against increases in tuition fees. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

0800 7318496