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14 May 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 12:19pm

Are students falling out of love with Labour?

Labour maintained support in its student-heavy seats, but the Greens are on the rise. 

By Ben Walker

The 2021 local elections were an disappointing set of results for Keir Starmer’s Labour party. Put simply, this election was witness to a now united right repeating its success of the 2019 general election.

But beyond this broad narrative, different lessons can be learned from drilling into the data on various groups. So what of the battleground for the student vote? 

People aged 18-24 in Britain do not have the best record for democratic participation at the ballot box. In 2019, according to Ipsos MORI, just under half turned out, which represented a fall of 7pts on 2017. Granular ward-by-ward results, however, can let us see whether their political minds are changing.

In areas where students over the age of 18 accounted for more than 20 per cent of the ward population, Labour’s vote, when compared to 2016 and 2017, stayed remarkably stable, with an average fall of 0.3 percentage points.

Labour held its own in student areas
Local election results by ward with [X]% of residents who are students. Changes with 2016/17

Looking at the table, it seems the relevance of the Liberal Democrats to students has yet to recover to its pre-coalition days. Compared to 2016/17, Liberal Democrat support is down 2pts in areas where students make up more than 20 per cent of residents. 

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Such a finding is all the more stark considering the party lost only 0.1pts of its support in areas with next to no students.

The Greens, meanwhile, saw their vote rise by almost 4pts in the same wards, which is above average when put against the national picture.

Despite Green gains in vote share, of the 27 wards with a heavy student demographic that were up for election this year, 17 voted Labour (a fall compared to last time of just one), five voted Liberal Democrat (down two), four voted Green (an increase of three), and one (in Winchester) was gained by the Conservatives.

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[See also: How blue has the Red Wall turned?]

One of the biggest falls for Labour in this sample came in Liverpool Central, where the party’s share of the vote fell by 13pts, and the Green vote rose by 7pts. That said, Labour still won with 57 per cent of the vote to the Green Party’s 24 per cent.

You could conclude from all this that Labour’s hegemony in student-dominated areas remains unchallenged. But we must also consider turnout data, which suggests enthusiasm for the party is lower compared to that seen for the Conservatives – particularly, as polls do say, among young voters. 

One clear takeaway from the election is that the Greens are on the rise, and the party’s biggest increases came in non-student wards. While they did strike through with some seat wins in student areas, what’s more remarkable is that they gained not just in the parts of Britain with the most graduates, but in all corners. They saw vote-shares rise in wards with a large proportion of highly-qualified residents, and also in those without.

Local election gains for the Greens came across the board
Share of residents with no qualifications vs. change in support for the Greens when compared to 2016/17.

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The prior assumption – that the Green Party’s base of support comes from student voters dissatisfied with Labour – appears somewhat outdated, if not wholly inaccurate. It is more of a “Twitter narrative” than reality – and while Green seat wins may have largely come in the more qualified parts of the country, some of its biggest vote gains came in the corners of Britain with the smallest numbers of voters with qualifications.

[See also: Who will win the Chesham and Amersham by-election?]