Universities and #GE2017 – Bath

As part of our continuing series on constituencies with a large higher education presence, I took a look at the picturesque provincial outpost of Bath, home to the University of Bath and Bath Spa University.

Bath has been a traditional heartland for the Liberal Democrats since the early 1990s. However, following the party’s disastrous results in 2015, it was one of the many south-western seats that fell to the Conservatives.

Yet Bath is one of only five seats that the Lib Dems lost where they are less than 10% behind the incumbent. Just like Cambridge, it is one of the key seats the party would hope to win back this year. Once again, Bath is key battleground for a Liberal-Conservative stand off.

The candidates

Conservative incumbent Ben Howlett has made a big impression on the higher education sector in just two years as an MP. One sector wonk described him to me as a “good Tory” for universities, sitting on the liberal wing of the Conservative party. As one of the small number of Tory MPs to have a constituency containing two universities, it is hard for him to ignore key higher education policy issues, and Howlett has been very active in the sector as a backbencher. After speaking during the Higher Education and Research Bill second reading debate, Howlett sat on the Commons Public Bill Committee. An ardent Remainer in a Remain-voting city, he has written a piece in the Telegraph calling for students to be removed from the net migration figure, in defiance of the Prime Minister, and has served as Vice-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Students (APPGS). Despite this, Howlett may still struggle to shake off the more negative of the aspects of the Tory brand for students and university staff. 

Things haven’t been plain sailing for the Liberal Democrats. The original candidate, Jay Risbridger, withdrew from the campaign only a week after the election was announced. There was a brief rumour that Jo Johnson’s sister, Rachel Johnson, was preparing to step in following her very public move to the party in protest at Brexit. However, Lib Dem party rules require you to be a member for a least a year before being able to stand for election, so instead, Wera Hobhouse has been selected.

Bath might have been a litmus test for the viability of an anti-Conservative ‘progressive alliance’. Last year, former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett identified Bath as a key seat where a progressive alliance could unseat the Conservatives. However, Labour and the Greens are both fielding candidates, whilst UKIP are not. Lib Dem door knockers are no doubt encouraging tactical voting as their best hope of unseating the Conservatives. However, the current Labour leadership’s popularity with students may be a boon to Labour candidate Joe Rayment, currently a local councillor in Twerton, a predominantly student area of the city. This may eat into the Liberal Democrats’ vote and boost Howlett’s hopes of being returned to Westminster.

Though many of its students live in the city, Bath Spa’s main campus actually lies outside the constituency, and instead in North East Somerset. This is solidly safe Tory territory, held by the widely-recognised backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg.

The student vote

HEPI analysis of the 2015 general election found that constituencies with high turnout and high number of students were typically Lib Dem/Tory battlegrounds such as Bath. Turnout in 2015 was high at 74.8%, and students make up 22.4% of the population, suggesting a high number turned out, despite reports of low numbers of students registered to vote.

Yet the timing of the snap election is challenging for turning out the student vote this time. Both universities will mostly finish for the summer a few days before the election.

The University of Bath Students’ Union has been encouraging students to register to vote in the constituency with the greatest impact, either at home or in Bath itself. In many cases this will likely be the latter. The union has seen a recent rise in political activism and engagement with the formation of  a“Politics and Activism” group, within which different parties and single issue policy groups affiliate.

However, any campaign seeking to woo students in Bath risks being damaging its appeal to local residents, many of whom are concerned about the growing number of students in a relatively small city. Bath’s strict planning rules and an inability to easily expand has led to the perception that students overcrowd the housing market and monopolise affordable housing. The council is currently reviewing planning policy on Houses of Multiple Occupation. If steering clear of housing, parties have tended to focus on other local issues such as air pollution and the NHS.

Brexit and international students

With a 57.9% majority voting to remain part of the EU, Bath is one of the top 20 Remain constituencies in the UK. A new pressure group called “Bath for Europe” – affiliated to ‘Britain for Europe’ – holds regular marches and campaigns in the city centre. The group has actively opposed Ben Howlett and is encouraging members to vote tactically, despite him being a vocal Remain supporter last year. The group argue that Howlett has not opposed a hard Brexit. As it happens, one of its leading organisers is Lib Dem candidate Wera Hobhouse.

For the city’s two universities, Brexit has thrown up different types of challenges. Bath Spa claims that it is not reliant on its 650 full-time international students for income and continues to recruit well domestically. However, the University of Bath has 30% of its students from outside the UK. The university also has a high proportion of international staff, including many from the EU. There have been several staff announcements providing guidance to EU staff, and the university has also offered to cover the expenses of applying for permanent residence.

It would seem an anti-Brexit line will be popular in Bath. However, as elsewhere, the Liberal Democrats have generally struggled to capitalise on being the only solidly pro-EU major party in England. Howlett’s position is also stronger for having campaigned to Remain, and since for advocating to remain in the single market and not to include international students in net migration figures. Howlett’s support may primarily rest on Conservative ‘Re-Leavers’ – Remain supporting Tories who will nonetheless continue to back the party.

The Conservatives have a slim majority in Bath, and at the campaign’s outset the Lib Dems would have thought well of their chances. But with both candidates holding similar lines on Brexit, it could be hard to convert the undecided voters and both the Labour and Green candidates have the potential to split the opposition vote resulting in a win for the Conservatives. Yet, the current Tory MP may struggle to shake off the manifesto promises made by Theresa May that he appears to oppose.

With thanks to Steph Harris (Bath Spa University) and Kat Moynihan (University of Bath Students’ Union) for their input.

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