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Could students swing the vote in 2015?

A new study from HEPI explores students electoral power, their voting patterns and the effect that they may have on the 2015 election.
This article is more than 6 years old

Emily Lupton graduated from the University of Lincoln in 2014 with a degree in Journalism. She worked for Wonkhe as Graduate Editor for a year before moving onto other journalistic pursuits.

A new study from HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute) explores students electoral power and the effect that they may have on the 2015 election. The report is based on analysis by Professor Stephen Fisher of Trinity College, Oxford and suggests that student votes could potentially affect the outcome of May’s general election.

There are around 1.8 million fulltime undergraduates and postgraduates studying in the UK, around 3 per cent of the population. Students’ impact as an electoral force is hard to measure as it depends on student density in the parliamentary seat area as well as the vulnerability of the vote in terms of the general public.

If the 2015 election is close, and it looks like it may be, students could hold enough weight to tip the balance of power. The survey work in the report finds that students could swing the result in just over 10 constituencies which is less than many might estimate yet in a close call, could be defining.

The analysis in the report also suggests that many student voters are led by policies that directly affect students. While you would expect students to vote for policies which affect their own personal interests, often policies aimed at appealing to students will only affect future students (and in many cases, future voters).

The new system of Individual Electoral Registration affects students more than any other group as they often live at two addresses during the year. This could affect the number of students voting in 2015. A few higher education institutions including Sheffield University and Manchester Metropolitan University have linked their electronic enrolment systems to the compilation of the electoral roll which appears to have been successful.

Turnout has been lower among young people in Britain for a long time, dipping to 38.2 per cent in 2005. While there was some recovery in 2010, little more than half of 18-24 year olds voted (51.8 per cent). Students however are slightly more likely to vote than other 18-24 year olds, by 8 percentage points in 2005 and 10 points in 2010. Students are not on the lowest levels of turnout but are well below average.

The report finds that in recent elections (2001, 2005 and 2010), the student vote has swung towards the Liberal Democrats.

Back in 2001 the Liberal Democrats committed to abolish tuition fees. They received a 5.4 per cent rise in votes from constituencies in England and Wales made up of more than 10 per cent students. Without this differential swing, the Liberal Democrats would most likely not have gained Guildford from the Conservatives.

In 2005 the Liberal Democrats continued to benefit from student voters and in the most recent election in 2010 where the Liberal Democrats continued to promise scrapping tuition fees, survey information in the report suggests that student voters were even more strongly Liberal Democrat. There was an estimated 6 per cent larger gap between student voters and others than in previous years, at plus 16 per cent.

Since the last election and the following coalition with the Conservatives, there has been a clear fall in popularity. Liberal Democrat support among students has fallen from 44 per cent in 2010 to 9 per cent in 2014 (figures from The British Election Study Internet Panel Survey). Now the vote has moved towards Labour and the Greens.

Students are half as likely to support UKIP as the rest of the population (7 per cent to 15 per cent respectively). At the 2014 European Parliament elections students were more likely to vote Green than UKIP (25 per cent to 11 per cent respectively), though many students who voted Green intend to support Labour in the 2015 general election.

While many parliamentary seats where there is a high density of students are considered ‘safe’, the voting behaviour by students in the next election could alter the outcome in up to a dozen seats. Depending on the balance of support for the main parties overall, the Conservatives might lose seats to Labour due to the student vote. They may also gain one or two seats due to lost Liberal Democrat seats in student areas.

Potentially we may see two seats (in Portsmouth South and Kingston and Surbiton) delivered from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives, two seats (in Bermondsey and Old Southwark and Bristol West) from the Liberal Democrats to Labour and six seats (in Hendon, Lancaster and Fleetwood, Lincoln, Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, Brighton Kemptown and Loughborough) from the Conservatives to Labour.

Nick Clegg’s seat, Sheffield Hallam, may also be vulnerable to a Labour challenge as it has a relatively high number of students and public sector workers.

HEPI’s report is an interesting piece in the run up to next year’s election. The survey work and research examines the student vote over the last few decades and finds that students vote for policies that will affect their peers or future students. The report finds that while students provided strong support for the Liberal Democrats in past elections, there has been a clear drop and Labour is now looking favourable. The report also finds that if the 2015 general election is a close fight, students may hold the power to tip the balance and could help determine the government for the next five years.

 Read HEPI’s report ‘Do students swing elections’ here

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