Student vote could swing 2015 general election, argues new report

David Kingman looks at a new report which argues that the student vote could be an important demographic at the upcoming general electiongraduation

Students could play key role in determining the outcome of the 2015 general election, according to a new analysis from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).

The report, entitled Do students swing elections? Registration, turnout and voting behaviour among full-time students, analysed historic voting data among full-time students to see how they may have affected the outcomes of previous elections, and compared this with polling data that looks at how people are planning to vote in 2015 to gauge what impacts students are likely to have.

Collapse in support for Lib Dems

The report’s authors argue that the historic record suggests students have generally voted in favour of whichever party was perceived to have the most pro-student higher education funding policy. They claim that this explains why students turned towards voting for the Liberal Democrats at the 2001, 2005 and 2010 elections, while the analysis of students’ current voting intentions suggests that many of them are planning to vote Labour in 2015. The authors’ analysis of the British Election Study suggests that support for the Lib Dems among students has fallen from 44% in 2015 to just 13% earlier this year.

As one of the authors, Professor Stephen Fisher of Oxford University, argues, “it is remarkable the extent to which changes in the student vote at elections since 1997 reflect changes in the perceived generosity of party policy for all three main Westminster parties. But if anything, the student vote seems to have reacted more strongly to apparent breaches of promise. Support for Labour among students dropped dramatically in 2005 after they were seen to go back on their 2001 manifesto promise not to introduce ‘top-up’ fees. Similarly, Liberal Democrat support for tuition fees while in government despite pre-election pledges to vote against them seems to have led to an even greater fall in the Lib Dem student vote than for Britain as a whole.”

While the report acknowledges that the majority of student voters live in safe seats, HEPI have identified 10 constituencies where they think a shift away from the Lib Dems towards Labour or the Greens (who also poll very favourably among students) could result in the seat changing hands. According to their modelling, changes in student voting preferences could see the Lib Dems lose two seats to each of the Conservatives and Labour, while the latter could also gain a further six seats from the former. With all the forecasts suggesting the election will be extremely close, even the loss or gain of just a few seats could be hugely important to the overall outcome.

Will they vote?

HEPI’s report recognises that the impact of students’ political views could be blunted by the fact that they are less likely to turn out than members of older age groups. The report explains that enabling them to vote will be more complicated in 2015 than it was in previous elections because of changes to the electoral register which have occurred since then. Under the new system of electoral registration, voters need to register individually, rather than as members of a household, which can cause problems as students tend to change address frequently, and may find that they are registered to vote at their home address while they are away during term-time, or vice versa.

The authors of the HEPI report recommend that universities should do everything in their power to encourage more students to register to vote and to assist them in doing so. They highlight the example of several universities, including Sheffield University and Manchester Metropolitan, which have now linked voter registration to their student enrolment processes, and encourage others to do the same. HEPI director Nick Hillman made this point strongly in remarks that were quoted by the BBC:

“If the opinion polls are a guide to the next election, then students could just swing the overall result and hold the keys to power. Students have as much right to be on the electoral roll as everyone else and it would be a tragedy if the new registration system weakened their voice to a whisper.”