Students mock Nick Clegg. Photo: Getty/Peter Macdiarmid
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Sheffield's students could depose Nick Clegg – they are alert to the danger of losing their votes

Because of the new system, there is a risk that students will turn up to vote on 7 May, but won't be registered.

It will be harder for young people to vote in this general election than the last. The switch to Individual Electoral Registration threatens to result in a deeply unedifying spectacle: thousands of students going to polling stations, only to be told that they are not registered to vote.

It is often said that young people do not deserve sympathy if they cannot be bothered to vote. But that is no reason to put up a further obstacle to voting. However inadvertently, that is what IES, which prevents students from being registered in blocks or automatically by their institutions, has become.

The upshot is depressing. In 2010, 22 per cent of students were not registered to vote; that number threatens to be significantly greater at this election. That means that the political generation gap – over 65s were 23 per cent more likely to vote than those aged 18-24 at the last election – could increase at the next election. Add in an ageing population too, and it means that young people will be even easier to ignore.

One university is quietly challenging such fatalism. While most universities have been lamentably slow in responding to the change in the voter registration system, Sheffield University has been a welcome exception. Last September, when students were enrolling online for a new year or the start of their degrees, they were given the opportunity to be included on the electoral register. 65 per cent of Sheffield University students opted in: a powerful antidote to the notion that young people do not care about politics.

Still, a problem remained. To register to vote, Sheffield University students needed to enter their national insurance numbers. Almost two-thirds did not know or could not find theirs. As of November, just 24 per cent of students were registered to vote.

Belatedly the government has reacted to the derisory rates of voter registration among young people. It has committed an additional £10m to help local authorities and national organisations boost the number of people registering to vote. In December, the Cabinet Office announced a relaxation of guidelines for Electoral Registration Offices, making it easier for them to verify applications. Officials in Sheffield can now verify students’ registrations even without their national insurance numbers.

The effect has been dramatic. In December and January, 7,000 students at Sheffield University, who had tried to register last October but had not entered their national insurance details, were added to the electoral roll. Around two-thirds of students today are on the electoral roll. In Broomhill, a student-heavy ward in Sheffield Central constituency, the number of registered voters has swelled by around 400 from a year ago, when Household Electoral Registration was still being used. If managed properly the switch in the voter registration system need not reduce student turnout.

Unfortunately no other universities have followed Sheffield’s lead in making it as easy for students to register. All Sheffield Hallam have done, for example, is provide the Electoral Registration Office with a list of students enrolled to the university. The difference in approach will result in many Hallam students feeling disenfranchised come May. A student at Sheffield Hallam is less than half as likely to be registered to vote as one at Sheffield University.

While Sheffield University offers a model for other institutions to follow it is too late for them to do so before the next election. The best that most other universities can do now is work with local authorities to mitigate the damage in student registration numbers. But Sheffield University offers a glimpse of what the political power of students could be. In Sheffield Hallam 17.3 per cent of the electorate are students, the vast majority from Sheffield University. A higher student turnout there could yet mean a P45 for Nick Clegg.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.