No age group is more supportive of Labour than young people – the challenge for the party is getting them to turn out. This traditional task has been made harder by the coalition’s introduction of indvidual voter registration, which has led to hundreds of thousands of 16-24-year-olds falling off the electoral roll.
In a speech today at Sheffield Hallam Students’ Union, Ed Miliband will denounce the “scandal” of a million voters disappearing from the register. The decline has been greatest in university cities and towns such as Cardiff (-8.9 per cent), Liverpool (-6.4), Newcastle (-9.0), Southampton (-7.9), Leicester (-5.6), Nottingham (-6.4), Brighton (-10.5), and Hull (-6.6) – precisely the kind of areas where Labour hopes to make gains from the Lib Dems and the Tories. Under the new system, universities and colleges are no longer able to block register students living in halls of residences. The result is that students, often without their knowledge, could lose their chance to punish the coalition parties for measures such as the tripling of tuition fees and the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance.
The choice of venue is strikingly political – Sheffield Hallam is represented by one Nick Clegg – although Labour aides point out that the students’ union actually lies in Labour-held Sheffield Central and say “not to read too much” into the location. Clegg’s seat is not one of the party’s 106 targets although a recent Lord Ashcroft poll put candidate Oliver Coppard just three points behind the Deputy PM.
Miliband will say:
This government has betrayed young people. I am determined that we can fulfil the Promise of Britain so that the next generation does better than the last. But even before we get to this election, we now know there is a clear and present danger that young people will not even have the right to use their voice.
In the last year almost one million people have fallen off the Electoral Register, hundreds of thousands of them young people. This is a direct consequence of the government’s decision to ignore warnings that rushing through new individual registration reforms would damage democracy. It has.
Having broken their promises on tuition fees to young people, having failed to build the economy that will work for them, having short-changed their future, this is David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s final insult to young people. They are sitting by and watching hundreds of thousands of young people in our country lose their sacred democratic rights.
He will add:
We will not allow this scandal to happen and no right-thinking person should either. Labour will now lead a national mission to stop young people being denied a voice at in this election. And today I urge universities, local councils, and young people themselves to play their part. Let’s work together to register young people to vote and make sure they don’t lose their voice.
We will shape a manifesto that gives the best future for young people. We will ensure that young people do not lose their voice. I urge young people to make sure their voice is heard.
Labour adds that both Sheffield universities have helped register students, explaining why the decline in voter numbers is smaller than elsewhere. The party’s frontbenchers will be contacting local government leaders and vice-chancellors over the next fortnight to urge “action plans” ahead of the voter registration deadline of 20 April. In the last week, 18 Labour staff members have begun work in university towns and cities as “student vote activators”.
Some in the party have long been warning of the electoral danger to Labour of falling voter registration levels and argue that Miliband’s intervention has come too late. One source told me: “Miliband is right to address this issue – even if it is late in the day. People have been asking this for years. The best we can hope for now is to limit the damage.” There is praise, however, for the work done by John Spellar (“led by example in his own seat”), Ivan Lewis (who heads the party’s unit on youth voters) and Liz Kendall (who has taken a creative and innovative approach to family-based registration).
Meanwhile, stung by Miliband’s talk of a “scandal”, the Lib Dems have issued a withering response. Tom Brake MP said: “Labour must have forgotten they began the policy of individual electoral registration while they were in government and still support it in principle.
“Instead of scaremongering, Labour should be working with their own local authorities to ensure that the large amount of money available is spent helping people, particularly students, register to vote.
“Lots of these people will still be on the electoral register, but would have previously been registered twice. Labour also seem keen to hide the fact that the Coalition Government has made it extremely easy to register to vote – it can be done online in a couple of minutes.
“Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government have recently secured an extra £10 million to help boost registration rates among students and other groups at risk of under registration.”