Students in a more cheerful mood. Photo: Dan Kitwood
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.