Students take new seats for a welcome week election

An election at the start of the academic year could disenfranchise students. David Kernohan explains

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

If you feel like a general election needs to come sooner, you have an unlikely ally in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Recent speculation suggests that the date generally accepted as being the most likely date for a poll – some time in November 2024 – is losing its lustre. The smart money, it appears (and this is from a reasonably well-informed source) is in “early” October 2024.

With higher education experience constituting a fairly decent predictor of voting intention (as in recent elections, more time you’ve spent as a student equates to a propensity to not vote for the Conservative party) we are long overdue a look at the new (post-boundary review) student seats.

You’ll find that below – but it’s the election date that is really bothering me.

Internal migration

The start of the academic year sees the UK’s largest internal migration event. Hundreds of thousands of young people travel from their home to live and study near a university or college campus. Those first weeks of term (generally between the second week of September and mid-October) pass in a flurry of enrolment, orientation, unpacking, and new friends.

Hopefully, somewhere within all that excitement, a student will take a moment to register to vote. New students may be registering in a new constituency entirely – returning students may have a new address to register at.

UK voter registration works on a rolling basis. The register is usually updated on the first working day of each calendar month, with an application deadline early in the previous month. For a specific election, there are usually a handful of extra register updates – for example for the local elections on 2 May there are three “interim election notices of alteration” in April allowing for the register to be updated in time for voting to take place. We don’t yet know when those dates will be for the general election.

If the vote is on October 3rd, for example, that would put the voter registration deadline on or around the week of 16 September. The problem is that you can’t register on the basis that you will be resident somewhere when the election is held – you have to be resident on the day you register. So the potential for widespread disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of new students is a real one if they’ve not yet moved into where they’ll be living.

Registration and identification

Despite having a duty to comply with condition E5 of the Office for Students condition of registration, not all providers will have systems in place to facilitate the easy registration of students as voters at this speed. Simply knowing who your students will be is not enough, a term-time address is also required – the ongoing accommodation crisis in many university towns and cities (and indeed a trend seeing new students placed in halls in entirely different cities, or occasionally countries) makes this very difficult to do before students actually arrive.

Even if you do manage to register students on the week they arrive, at the last possible moment for qualification to vote in the general election, there is the Voter ID requirement. Voters need to show photo identification in order to vote in the UK – and from the list of valid options students without a passport or driving licence have the option of applying for a Voter Authority Certificate (requires an address, the government claims it can turn these around in an optimistic 6 working days before an election) or a Proof of Age Standards Scheme (PASS) card (requires an address, usually takes 2-3 weeks).

The entirely sensible approach of using ID that students may already have, such as a Student ID card issued by a university, is apparently not possible. We trust universities to monitor (on behalf of the Home Office) the activities of international students, but not to vouch for the identity of home students. Likewise, the kind of travel cards that young people may have (local bus pass, Young Persons’ Railcard) are not in scope.

To be clear, there is good practice in universities concerning voter registration – Paul Greatrix had a useful round up on the site a few weeks ago. But the voter ID thing might be a bigger problem – and a welcome week election either way makes this a more acute issue.

Campus constituencies

But where are students going to have an impact this time round? New constituency boundaries change the game.

Using Census 2021 data (so a high degree of credibility, but omitting Scotland and Northern Ireland) we can see which new seats have a high proportion of full time students among residents:

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And, for the sake of comparison, the same data plotted against the old constituency boundaries:

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I might as well chuck in some recent constituency-level polling as a reference point – here’s the YouGov MRP from January.

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What stands out

There’s big noise in Yorkshire. Leeds Central and Headingly is an astonishing 38.71 per cent students – encompassing key student areas in the centre and north west of Leeds. Unsurprisingly, it looks like a comfortable win for Labour at the next election (YouGov has it at 58 per cent LAB).

Changes to the Sheffield Central boundaries add more students to the available pool of voters – we are at 33.89 per cent (up from 28.23 per cent on the old boundaries). Again, YouGov has the new seat with 58 per cent of all votes going to Labour.

There’s also a new student-heavy seat in Manchester: Manchester Rusholme has 28.07 per cent students, encompassing the old student areas of the Manchester Gorton and Manchester Central seats. YouGov has Labour getting 62 per cent of the vote here.

The old Cardiff Central, Newcastle Upon Tyne East, and Liverpool Riverside seats were some of the clearest student constituencies in the country. The redesign of the Cardiff and Newcastle constituencies mean that there is no longer a single container for most students. On Tyneside the split is between Newcastle upon Tyne Central and West, and Newcastle upon Tyne North, both at around 15 per cent students). In Cardiff, the new Cardiff South and Pernarth (20.29 per cent students) encompasses some of the main student areas in the old seat.

Liverpool Riverside has lost a fair proportion of students to the new Liverpool Wavertree constituency, but still has an impressive 23.56 per cent student population. That’s a 66 per cent Labour voting safe seat.

Outside of the North, the new Bristol Central (big chunks of the old Bristol West) joins established student strongholds Nottingham South and Cambridge as key sector seats. The old Oxford East student areas are in the new Oxford West and Abingdon. The latter two will be particularly interesting – YouGov predicts a large (45 per cent) Liberal Democrat majority in the Oxford seat, while perennial three-way race Cambridge is slated to go Labour (46 per cent) with the Lib Dems in second place.

The new boundaries give us 12 constituencies in England and Wales with over 20 per cent students, and 28 with over 15 per cent. These are very much the kind of numbers that can swing seats – if, of course, students are able to vote.

2 responses to “Students take new seats for a welcome week election

  1. “With higher education experience constituting a fairly decent predictor of voting intention (as in recent elections, more time you’ve spent as a student equates to a propensity to not vote for the Conservative party)”. Presumably the argument is that at the next election, students currently in higher education are more likely to vote for opposition parties than the incumbent party than their counterparts not in higher education. This is doubtless true. It is also true that students in HE are more likely to be on the electoral register and to turn out at the polls than their counterparts. However, over a lifetime the reverse is true. To the extent that education boosts future earnings, voters with higher incomes are more likely to gravitate towards parties with policies that do not tax incomes, investments or property as highly.

    “The new boundaries give us 12 constituencies in England and Wales with over 20 per cent students, and 28 with over 15 per cent. These are very much the kind of numbers that can swing seats”
    The article, however, does not point to a single seat where the electoral outcome is likely to hinge on student votes. It lists several seats where student voters may increase the size of a Labour or Liberal Democrat majority. Labour’s poll lead is so large that it is very hard to see students making a difference. Possibly if the analysis extended to Scotland, there may be examples where Labour rather than the SNP could win a seat owing to student voters. For example, North East Fife, Stirling and Glasgow.

    1. In Scotland the effect would probably be in the other direction – checking the crosstabs on recent Scottish polling it looks like the SNP is ahead of Labour for all age bands 18-44 and this is strongest for the youngest voters. (This seems to be consistent across different polling companies)

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