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13 April 2016

The student vote is fertile territory for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour

Labour must galvanise its new student supporters into joining the party and campaigning.

By David Barker

It is estimated that 1.4 million people have dropped off the electoral register over the past two years as a result of the Conservative government’s changes to the electoral system. The Electoral Commission recently raised concerns that this could increase to nearly 2 million people. A disproportionately high number of those affected are university students, as the government has asked electors to sign up individually, rather than by household.

The central issue here is that students tend to have a home address and a student address, but can only vote in one constituency. As the government can’t assume whether students will vote at home or at university, both constituencies run the risk of having a skewed number of votes compared to others. This causes a problem when drawing boundaries, as our democracy depends on every vote having equal value, which is difficult to determine when there are voters with feet in two constituencies.

At first glance, these changes make some sense: students are unlikely to be studying for the same degree from one election to the next, let alone be living in the same home. What they ignore is that student halls and housing tend to be oversubscribed, meaning there are a fairly stable number of electors in these areas. Furthermore, elections are usually held in May, when most students are still at their university, often in the midst of exam season, which reduces the chance to travel home to vote.

Of course, all this could be solved by having students sign up for postal ballots to be sent to their home constituencies, but that would ignore those without a home constituency, and the fact that many students move out hoping to make a new home. It’s hard to feel connected to your community if you have no say in who represents you there.

For the Labour Party, these changes could mean a reduction in seats. Not just because of people not being able to vote, but also because the forthcoming boundary changes will be based on the current figures for the number of electors, which would mean areas with a lot of students having fewer MPs to represent them.

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But that rests on the assumption that the student vote is in some way different to the general vote.

A year ago, the Guardian reported that there were 191 constituencies in which the student population was big enough to change the outcome of the 2010 election. They isolated 10 constituencies where they believed the student vote was most likely swing the election. Of the 10 listed, the Tories increased their majorities in three, but lost one seat to Labour. In the remaining six, Labour won two back from the Liberal Democrats, held one against the SNP surge, lost by a bigger margin to the Greens in another and, finally, came frustratingly close to unseating Nick Clegg in a seat where the polls kept oscillating between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

This mixed bag of results, in which Liberal Democrat support fell across the board with most voters heading towards Labour and the Tories, is largely representative of the results seen across the country. The difference is that the only seats to change hands were all Labour gains.

I spoke with Birmingham University Labour Society (BULS), a student group committed to supporting the Labour Party by holding weekly events to debate and discuss the party and facilitating students joining campaigns. The society capitalised on the boost in Labour Party membership after the leadership election, adding 700 people to its mailing list and attracting over 130 new members, which allows for BULS to organise weekly doorstep campaigning. Whether they realise this or not, the already active group of members provided them with the infrastructure needed to cope with this surge, something not every Labour group had.

Rikki Lissaman, one of the co-chairs, thinks the student vote is actually similar to the national vote, “in the sense that it isn’t one homogenous group of people who all share the same beliefs or values”. However he also believes that “student voters tend to be much more liberal on social issues”. Indeed, the Higher Education Policy Institute carried out research into students and the 2015 election, finding that students’ voting concerns aligned fairly closely with the general public, with the notable exception of immigration, which didn’t rate highly as a concern.

In fact, so-called “student issues” didn’t rate highly either, which makes sense, as people are usually only students for three or four years, and any changes to student life would come in after they finish their studies. With that in mind, lowering tuition fees may be of more interest to the 16 and 17 year olds who can’t yet vote than those struggling at the moment, which could suggest Corbyn’s opposition to tuition fees won’t attract many votes.

Rikki isn’t sure Corbyn has affected student voting intentions, and it’s too early to tell, but he does believe that since Corbyn’s election politically-minded, left wing students are engaging with the Labour Party when they might otherwise have not.

A YouthSight exit poll of students at the 2015 general election reported 39% of students voted Labour, versus 19% for the Conservatives: a stark contrast to the overall result. In addition, the Greens achieved 13% and UKIP scraped 3%, which is almost exactly the reverse of the general vote. With over half of all students voting either Labour or Green, it seems that the student vote is, in fact, very different to the general public.

There’s good news and bad news for Labour here. The bad is the common assumption that students vote in low numbers, and Labour can win seats through getting students to cast their ballot. The reality is that 69% voted in 2015, which was a higher proportion that the general electorate turnout of 66%.

However, since Corbyn’s election, polls have consistently shown the Green vote falling. This is the good news: the Greens drew a big chunk of the student vote last year and Corbyn’s Labour are well-positioned to attract those voters from them, much in the same way that Labour and the Greens benefited from the Liberal Democrats losing over 40% of student voters since 2010. This could result in the student vote leaning even more heavily towards Labour, which will be invaluable in a number of swing seats.

It may not be the biggest voting bloc, and with electoral register reforms, it’s less concentrated than ever, but the student vote is certainly fertile ground for Corbyn’s Labour. If Labour can galvanise its student voters into joining the party and, more importantly, assisting in campaigns, then this group could be vital in the many seats Labour must win in order to form a government.

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