What should SUs do when an election is in the Summer?

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

When we think about the sorts of activities that SUs tend to undertake during general (and in devolved nations, other national) elections, there’s usually three things.

  • Getting students registered to vote has been crucial ever since the government removed automatic registration of students.
  • Getting the vote out has been important – and now has a new flavour given that students need to take recognised ID. This includes postal and proxy votes.
  • Giving students information about the policies and positions of parties so that they are informed on who to vote for – often through a hustings event.

In days gone by, the third of those was much more important – partly because SUs didn’t have to worry too much about students being registered or having ID!

The question for SUs at this election is which of the activities to concentrate on. It is of course crucial that students are registered, understand how and where to vote and have that all-important ID.

But there are some factors that feel like they mitigate against “policies and positions” activity this time around:

  • There are far fewer students around on campus for a summer election, and a large proportion of those that are may be international students unable to vote anyway.
  • The political parties don’t seem (at the time of writing) to want to say much about students or universities, and the manifestos haven’t come out yet (at the time of writing)

So what should SUs do?

Forgone conclusion

While getting students registered to vote and getting the vote out remains important, the reality is that at the time of writing, it’s fairly clear what the overall result of the election will be. It’s a decent hypothesis that if every SU did literally nothing on the election, Keir Starmer will be Prime Minister come July 5th.

But if that’s the right assumption, arguably there’s something really important that SUs could and should do in the remaining few weeks of the campaign.

The Conservatives have been in power since 2010 – first in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and latterly on their own.

And given where Conservative MPs are more likely to have come from, that means that for a long time, most MPs – and crucially ministers – are unlikely to have been from university (student) town and city seats.

But if Labour are about to win, that potentially all changes quite significantly.

It will become much more likely that Labour ministers in the Department for Education are from student/university seats. And given several other departments cover student issues, it’s also more likely that ministers, junior ministers and their assistants (Parliamentary Private Secretary, or PPSs) come from university/student seats too.

For example – is it any wonder that the Renter’s (Reform) Bill barely considered student issues when none of the ministers in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) were from university/student seats?

The official poverty stats produced by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) count tuition fee loans as income. Is it any wonder that nobody has been able to persuade DWP ministers to change that when none of the ministers in the department were from university/student seats?

Influential chairs and members of parliamentary committees will also be more likely to come from university/student seats.

But there’s a problem. A large number of long-standing, “veteran” Labour MPs are stepping down at this election. For example the widely regarded “student champion” and former SU CEO Paul Blomfield MP (Sheffield Central) is retiring.

And there’s therefore no guarantee that the MPs about to be elected in university/student seats will understand the myriad issues that students face. So the need to ensure that they are aware of the issues, and at least commit to exploring them if they are elected, becomes very important.

With the Lib Dems hovering close to becoming the official opposition, even if you’re in a set where it’s Blue v Yellow, ensuring the candidates are aware of and engaged in student issues matters a lot.

For a sense of how close things are – and who’s likely to win near your university – here’s Survation’s MRP poll.

The good news? There are still opportunities.

So what could or should SUs do?

Once the manifestos are out, there will be an opportunity to compare the promises on students and the sector and publish that.

But more importantly, as I say, at most previous elections most SUs have attempted to hold a hustings event. Even in term time these can suffer from poor turnout.

Yet these days, Zoom and Youtube lower the opportunity costs. It’s easier to hold an online student hustings, and even if you can’t get all of your local PPCs together at the same time, it’s easier to interview each of them and then edit those interviews together.

As long as you’re even-handed with each candidate, asking them all various questions – on university funding, student poverty, housing or whatever – would be fine.

You could even give each of them a list of the questions that students want to be answered in advance.

You don’t even have to have students watching live – you’d be saying to the candidates “we’ll send the recording to every student at the university”.

If you ask a prospective parliamentary candidate rto take part and they refuse – that would look pretty bad.

Many students will watch it – but even if they don’t, you’ll be ensuring two things:

  • That you’ve been able to put the key concerns of students to people who will hold influence over them
  • Even if you can’t get firm policy commitments, you may at least be able to get commitments to them exploring the issues with you properly after the election

And even if they do refuse, sending a list of written questions to each candidate may also help achieve some of the above goals.

One other thing is that most universities now have multiple seats in which students are likely to live given the growth of commuter students and students having to live further from campus. So it’s worth asking yourself if you should expand this sort of activity beyond your main campus.

This is almost certainly an election where students won’t make a huge difference to the overall result. That’s not to say you should drop getting them to take part. But it is to say that SUs can probably have the most influence by ensuring that the winners across the country are informed on and ready to work with you to act on those issues once the election is over. The opportunity to exert that influence is right now.

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