A new study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) analysing voting behaviour at the 2015 General Election suggests that students broadly supported the Labour Party in May but not in sufficient numbers to make a big difference to the outcome.
The report found that Ed Miliband’s Labour, which pledged to cut fees to £6,000, won a number of constituencies, like Chester and Ealing Central & Acton “on the strength of the student vote”.
It says “It is hard to see how Labour could have taken places like Chester, which they won from the Conservatives with a majority of just 93, without the relatively strong support they enjoyed among students.”
But HEPI suggests Labour did not pick up some of the student-heavy constituencies that polls suggested it would, including Hendon, Lincoln and Plymouth Sutton & Devonport. Of the six Conservative-Labour marginals HEPI said might turn Labour because of the number of students living in within them, only Lancaster & Fleetwood did.
Yet Labour did gain five student-heavy constituencies from the Liberal Democrats, which also lost two more to the Conservatives (Kingston & Surbiton and Portsmouth South), not because the Tories’ vote increased substantially in those areas, but because student support for Nick Clegg’s party plummeted, down 15.3% and 23.6% respectively.
This is particularly attributed to the Lib Dems’ u-turn on tuition fees, though the report also notes that “It made relatively little difference whether Lib Dems standing for re-election had opposed, abstained or supported £9,000 fees”.
Only one of the 20 seats with the highest proportion of full-time students in the UK is now held by the Lib Dems, down from a pre-election level of five. In Leeds North West, where Greg Mulholland has been the MP since 2005, Labour were third in 2010, 27 points behind the Lib Dems, and unlikely therefore to regain the seat.
Playing down the impact of students, however, the report claims that the collapse of the Lib Dem vote was “so dramatic that marginal seats with large numbers of students that were lost by the Lib Dems would have changed hands anyway”.
Speaking to Wonkhe, National Union of Students (NUS) President Megan Dunn said: “We need politicians, commentators and organisations to stop telling students they are apathetic and their voices don’t matter, and recognise the current system is inadequate at engaging the wider population. I’m sure Nick Clegg feels like we made a difference.
“Our student movement is key in determining the narrative of General Elections, and we know that student voters are vital in a number of seats. We estimate over 100,000 students were mobilised to register to vote for 2015 as part of our Generation Vote campaign.”
HEPI’s report adds that “While the Green Party enjoyed much support from students before the election, some of this had dissipated by election day and it made little difference”.
According to HEPI, students helped ensure Caroline Lucas increased her majority in Brighton Pavilion and were key contributors to the Greens pushing Lib Dem incumbent Stephen Williams into third in Bristol West, but didn’t increase the number of Green MPs.
HEPI director Nick Hillman said: “At the recent Labour Party Conference, Jeremy Corbyn said improving voter registration among students is one of his first big campaigns. That will be good for democracy, but it may not make much difference to the Labour cause. Overall, students are not currently as electorally powerful nor as different to other voters as has generally been assumed”.
But some think there appears to be potential for students to play a greater role in future, especially if voter registration is increased and if students are registered at their university address.
The report itself says: “Among those students who were on the electoral roll, turnout was relatively high. Yet it appears that many of them opted to vote at home rather than at their place of study, which may have affected the impact of students voting as a bloc.”
It also suggests higher education policy may still have more of an effect on the electorate’s voting intentions in the long-term, pointing out how the New Zealand Labour Party is widely believed to have won its 2005 General Election after promising to scrap a real rate of interest on outstanding student loans. Future Corbyn announcements on student loans and debt may well have an electoral impact among those who had already graduated by the time of this year’s General Election.
Many believe Corbyn put young people at the centre of his leadership campaign, pledging to abolish fees and “apologising” to students for Labour’s introduction of fees: 64% of under-25s who voted in the leadership election backed him with their first preference.
And, though future Labour’s HE policy hardly appears decided yet, if Corbyn provides a higher education plan seen as a real alternative to the Conservatives’, the 66-year-old may well cut through to students more than Miliband. The former Labour leader’s £6,000 fees policy drew criticism from the NUS for not going far enough, while others argued it could actually hit poor students hardest.
The study published today, which is preceded by a foreword from Labour’s former universities minister John Denham, is the first detailed analysis of the role of students in this year’s General Election.
You can read the HEPI report in full here.