This article is more than 7 years old

Liberal-minded students could swing the EU vote

Analysis of students' voting preferences attitudes confirms what many of us already know: the student vote will be vital to Remain's chances of success in the EU referendum. Adam Wright shows how.
This article is more than 7 years old

Adam Wright is Deputy Head of Policy (Higher Education & Skills) at the British Academy.

In spite of the great success getting students on the electoral register for the 2015 General Election, there was always debate over how much collective power students had to swing an election result. The final result was not what the majority of students voted for.

Students will have a disproportionate amount of power in tomorrow’s referendum. It’s an unlikely alliance: David Cameron now depends on them to vote in large numbers for Remain. What’s changed? Well nothing, actually; and that’s what’s interesting. In a strange paradox, some of the same characteristics that made the student vote less decisive at GE2015 could also make it the coup-de-grace for Brexit.

The simple explanation repeated widely in the media is that students tend to be young and highly educated, and these two characteristics are the strongest predictors of voting behaviour on the EU referendum. However, there is quite a bit more to it than that. We know from various studies that age and education are proxies for positioning on the liberal-authoritarian scale. If you are young and well educated, you are more likely to be liberal on most social issues.

Lessons from the General Election

Before the General Election, I was involved in a debate about student voting behaviour. My view is that tuition fees are not a decisive issue at the ballot box for students and that favourable tuition fee policies from political parties would not win them many extra votes.

In my view, the data also shows us that students are more socially liberal than the rest of the electorate, and this is the reason that they were drawn towards the Green Party last year. Students are also not particularly worried about immigration, hence the almost non-existent student support for UKIP. Most importantly, the data shows us that students are sensitive to policies that affect their cost of living and their position in the labour market.

According to the 2015 British Election Study, students are more likely to think that equal opportunities, particularly for LGBT+ and minority groups, have not gone far enough. They also have deeper concerns about the environment and human rights issues.

Students did not vote en masse for Labour last year partly because it wasn’t seen as a particularly liberal-minded party. A large portion of students voted Green instead, which under the first-past-the-post system meant that this did not result in any dramatic political outcome. An exit poll by Youthsight put the student Green vote at 13%; an NUS poll of recalled vote for third-year undergraduates had the Green vote at 17%.

There were also a surprisingly large number of students who still voted Liberal Democrat at the General Election. Evidence from the Youthsight and NUS polls suggests that a fair proportion of students may well have been “shy Lib Dems”. The continued Liberal Democrat support may be partly the result of popular incumbents being in university towns and cities such as Cardiff, Colchester, Cambridge and Manchester, and tactical voting may have been used to try and keep the Conservatives out. But students who supported the Lib Dems in 2015 were – like Green voters – more socially liberal than their Labour voting counterparts, suggesting that the “liberal” image of the Lib Dems didn’t completely fade among a core set of student supporters.

To give a clearer picture of this trend, in Chart 1 I’ve plotted the positioning of students on the liberal-authoritarian scale at the 2015 General Election against the rest of the British electorate. The student population is considerably less authoritarian than the wider electorate.


Over the last two decades, the electorate has appeared to move steadily further towards the authoritarian end of the scale, while students have instead spread out at the liberal end. The average gap in social attitudes between students and the wider electorate has widened.

When you compare the voting preference of students to their positioning on the liberal-authoritarian scale, you get a deeper understanding of this relationship – see Chart 2 below.


The Liberal Democrats and the Green Party attracted the most liberal-minded students, and there was a disproportionately high number of these compared to the rest of the electorate. In contrast, most authoritarian-minded students voted Conservative, but there were fewer of these compared to the rest of the electorate. Labour picked up voters from across the spectrum, perhaps because the salient issues for Labour voters were mainly economic rather than social. The NHS, employment, cost of living, and general economic concerns featured far more prominently among Labour student voters.

Unity is strength?

In short, the student vote in 2015 was collectively less influential on the final result because of students’ preferences for parties and policies that appear more socially liberal, fragmenting the student vote across parties that were unlikely to win. In a referendum, however, things are simpler. Rather than having several options to choose from, the choice is binary: Remain or Leave. And for most socially-minded liberals, the decision is clear: Remain.

The vast majority of students will vote to stay in the European Union, though not because they are proactive Europhiles. At a recent EU debate, Lord Owen, a prominent Leave campaigner, argued that young people were idealistic and believed in some utopian federal Europe. I don’t think that is the case. The EU and its direction were in no way prominent issues among students at the general election.

Nevertheless, students wish to stay in the EU and there are both push and pull factors at play. The biggest pull is the link between the EU and a selection of liberal rights and protections it upholds: workers’ rights, human rights, freedom of movement, and so on. The biggest push factor is the ideological distance between most students and the majority of Leave campaigners. The Leave campaign is led by politicians that students find repugnant. Nigel Farage is a given. Michael Gove and Iain Duncan-Smith are disliked for their attacks on education and welfare respectively. Boris Johnson may be an outlier, but I would wager that his support among students is lower than the rest of the electorate. Few students would trust these politicians to run the country; fewer still would trust them to protect the social and economic rights that young people care about.

Moreover, the central arguments from the Leave camp are not of interest to most students and, therefore, have no pull factor of their own. Immigration is key for rallying the disenfranchised white working-class, but most university students don’t have much interest in the issue or are likely to have positive views about immigration. Students are also less interested in arguments around patriotism and national identity, and while they may be unhappy with the lack of EU democracy, they are more likely to want reform rather than rejection.

The choice is simple for students in the referendum, whereas it was a lot more complex in the general election. The big question is not which way students will vote, but whether they bother to vote at all. With the polls neck-and-neck, should students come out of the woodwork to vote they could save the day for Remain.

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