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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Lord Sainsbury pulls funding from Progress and other political causes

The longstanding Labour donor will no longer fund party political causes. 

Centrist Labour MPs face a funding gap for their ideas after the longstanding Labour donor Lord Sainsbury announced he will stop financing party political causes.

Sainsbury, who served as a New Labour minister and also donated to the Liberal Democrats, is instead concentrating on charitable causes. 

Lord Sainsbury funded the centrist organisation Progress, dubbed the “original Blairite pressure group”, which was founded in mid Nineties and provided the intellectual underpinnings of New Labour.

The former supermarket boss is understood to still fund Policy Network, an international thinktank headed by New Labour veteran Peter Mandelson.

He has also funded the Remain campaign group Britain Stronger in Europe. The latter reinvented itself as Open Britain after the Leave vote, and has campaigned for a softer Brexit. Its supporters include former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and Labour's Chuka Umunna, and it now relies on grassroots funding.

Sainsbury said he wished to “hand the baton on to a new generation of donors” who supported progressive politics. 

Progress director Richard Angell said: “Progress is extremely grateful to Lord Sainsbury for the funding he has provided for over two decades. We always knew it would not last forever.”

The organisation has raised a third of its funding target from other donors, but is now appealing for financial support from Labour supporters. Its aims include “stopping a hard-left take over” of the Labour party and “renewing the ideas of the centre-left”. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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