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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt