Student vote may hand power to Labour as Lib Dem support collapses

Research by an Oxford academic suggests that university students could hold the key to which political party forms the next United Kingdom government after the May 2015 general election.

But that ability may be affected by a new system of voter registration which appears to weaken their tendency to register to vote.

A shift from household electoral registration to individual electoral registration affects students more than other groups because they are highly mobile, often live at two addresses during the year and are badly affected by the transitional arrangements to the new registration system.

While some universities have linked their electronic enrolment systems to the compilation of the electoral roll, others have performed less well.

The fee factor

Based on new analysis by Professor Stephen Fisher of Trinity College at Oxford, research for the Higher Education Policy Institute, or HEPI, confirms that political parties’ policies on tuition fees are a determining factor for the student vote.

Support swung towards the Liberal Democrats in 2001, 2005 and 2010 and is predicted to swing towards Labour at the 2015 election, affecting the result in around 10 seats.

In 2010, students were more likely to support the Liberal Democrats than any other party. But since the last election, support for the Liberal Democrats among students has fallen, probably as a result of the party’s failure to honour a pledge by leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to abolish tuition fees when his party joined a coalition government with the Conservatives.

The British Election Study Internet Panel Survey suggests that Liberal Democrat support among students has collapsed from 44% in 2010 to 9% in 2014.

Clegg’s own parliamentary seat, Sheffield Hallam, has a relatively high number of students and the highest proportion of public sector workers of any constituency, potentially making the seat vulnerable to a Labour challenge.

Students are now more likely to vote for the Labour Party than for any other party and Labour is more popular among students than among the rest of the population.

In contrast the UK Independence Party, which is enjoying an apparent upsurge in popularity in the general population, has had a relative lack of success among students.

Since the last election, the student vote has moved towards the Greens as well as Labour. The chances of the Green Party retaining its one seat, and even managing to win a second, is likely to depend upon how students vote.

Students must register

Nick Hillman, director of HEPI and co-author of the report, said: “Our new analysis suggests students’ votes are swayed by student issues, particularly university funding. But for students to make a difference, they must register to vote, turn out to vote and live in marginal constituencies.

“The likelihood is that these factors will determine the outcome in only around 10 constituencies. But, 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.

“However, the shift to individual electoral registration threatens the influence of students because it does not match their lives well. Some universities have worked hard, in conjunction with their local authorities, to ensure students are registered to vote. Others have done less.

“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.”

Professor Stephen Fisher said: “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."

Broken promises

“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. This has been witnessed in surveys since 2010 and also in the European Parliament election results this year.

“If maintained to next year’s general election, the Liberal Democrats are likely to do noticeably worse in constituencies with large numbers of student voters.”

The study says that differential voting behaviour by students could alter the outcome in up to a dozen seats, mainly to the benefit of Labour and to the detriment of the Liberal Democrats.

Depending on the balance of support for the main parties overall, the Conservatives might lose some seats to Labour as a result of the student vote but may simultaneously win one or two due to a heavier fall in the Liberal Democrat vote in student areas.

The report, Do students swing elections? is available here.