Students in a more cheerful mood. Photo: Dan Kitwood
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Young people make themselves easy to ignore – but politicians are also to blame

The damage to student voting registration numbers can only be mitigated.

It is sometimes said that young people only have themselves to blame. Yes, austerity has protected the old in the name of political expediency. But the young don't vote. And if you don't vote in a democracy, you can bet that vote-seeking politicians will ignore you.

There is something in this argument. Since 1987, the generation voting gap has more than doubled. In 1987, over-65s were only 9.4 per cent more likely to vote than under-25s. In 2010, that figure was 22.9 per cent, according to the British Election Study. Others put the difference even higher still.

But that young people do not vote is not just their fault. It’s also the fault of politicians, of all stripes, who have given the impression that they care not for the young. Twice in the past ten years, governing parties have broken their election promises to introduce tuition fees, as Labour did in 2004, and then abolish them, as the Liberal Democrats did when they trebled fees in coalition with the Conservatives in 2010.

(Click on graph to enlarge).

And it’s the fault of a political system that seems to put up barriers preventing the young from voting. A few months ago, a report was published highlighting which MPs were at risk from the student vote in May. While this attracted attention for showing the political threat facing Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam, the real story was now how many MPs were at risk but how few. This was not just because young people were reticent about voting.

In 2010, 22 per cent of students were not registered to vote. Thousands more face being unknowingly disenfranchised on polling day in May.

The next election will be the first time that the system of Individual Electoral Registration (IES), whereby voters have to register individually rather than by household, is used. Students can no longer be registered en masse in halls of residence. And because many students move accommodation from year to year, it is harder for Electoral Registration Officers to trace them to encourage them to re-register.

It all sounds very technical. But it will result in a deeply unedifying spectre of thousands of young people marching up to polling booths, only to be told that they do not have the right to vote. IES is not a con by the Conservatives – all parties support it because it is considered to be a safeguard against fraud. But all parties have been slow in recognising the disastrous consequences IES could have on student voting.

While Ed Miliband has earned some credit for raising the issue today, the problem has been known about for years. So has a solution. Sheffield University has liaised with Sheffield City Council to give new students the opportunity to be included on the electoral register when they register at university, thereby making it much easier to be registered to vote. Now, with no new university year before the general election, the damage to student registration numbers can only be mitigated.

And the failure to put enough safeguards in place to ensure students are registered to vote will not be felt only this May. Not voting in one election makes someone significantly less likely to do so in the following election. Add in an ageing population, and today’s young people could face being ignored not just in 2015 but for many years to come.  

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

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.