Left Out Liberal

A left-wing/liberal look at the UK's General Election of 2005.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Student Vote

Since the media and the blogosphere seem to be suffering from immense all weekend hangovers, I thought it was about time I did what I promised some weeks ago and wrote about my thoughts on what the media likes to term the "student vote". This is the second (and possibly last) in my series looking at why the youth just don't want to vote.

In my last essay, I generalised about the scope of youth voting altogether - i.e. anyone between 18-24. This time, I'm going to narrow the focus just a little to pick up on those particular bunches of people who may have the good fortune of being registered in two constituencies and can pick which one to vote in based on where their vote will be more effective. Or they could even get a postal vote in one and then vote in person in a different constituency. Certainly puts new meaning to the phrase "Vote early and vote often!" But it can be done.

Because our university students are theoretically being educated, most people would expect that they might be more inclined to turn out as they should be more aware of current affairs. I suspect this is broadly true, but the impact is very small. We still mostly won't vote. Worse is the fact that the media seems to think that students vote in enormous blocks to deliver support for one party. Yes, the Lib Dems and the Greens will be disproportionately voted for in comparison with the rest of the population, but there are still significant chunks of support for Conservatives and Labour.

The other point to take into account is the fact that a lot of University students will not be on electoral rolls at their University address. Many students live in halls of residence for the first year, and hall wardens often register the students with the local council. This is not guaranteed. If not, then they will have to actively register themselves - which is not likely to produce much success.

Of those who are registered, they may well vote. Well done to them. But there's no guarantee it will be an informed vote. As per my previous article, we must remember that this is probably the first election they will vote in, and it's probably fair to say that a lot, but likely a minority, will vote as their parents do. Politics is a dim and distant thing. An adult thing. Students are adults, but they still like to "rebel" against the norm. What better way to do it than protest against the political system - especially a system that likes to label people and fit them into convenient pigeon-holes. A lot of them just simply aren't ready for party politics. They still have not been socialised into the political culture. As before, they're not long finished being children, so there's a lot of catching up to do in this area. Politics and all its baggage is a lot to digest, and it really does take time to absorb it.

So a lot of them won't vote at all. But first years are just a proportion of the student vote. There are other years in University, of course, but the difference here is that most of them will be living in their own houses.

And that means active registration. No one does it for you. The electoral roll call letter turns up in October, and it most likely gets chucked in the bin or put under a pile of books, magazines or computer games. A lot of student houses simply have no one registered to vote in them [based on a small unscientific survey I did]. Of course, there will be plenty who do register, and there is also the added fact that second and third years have an extra year or two of life experience. They may be more interested in politics now. But still, because of simple apathy or just plain forgetting (students are remarkably forgetful) many of them will not be registered at all.

A significant majority are still registered at home. If they were bothered, they could request a postal vote for there. But again, that requires effort, and no amount of shit adverts from the Electoral Commission is going to motivate them to download the form, fill it in, get an envelope, buy a stamp and post it.

These factors all come together to decide that a majority of students just will not vote. At all. But to those who do want to vote, there is still the issue of deciding who to vote for. Because of all the hoo-ha about tuition fees, a stereotype of students only interested in their own financial affairs is forming. Sure, that was probably there anyway, but people are beginning to tire of hearing about students whinging about having to pay their way through life.

They may well be true. But they apply to everyone. I've heard more than enough of the "Me First" economics in this election, or the politics of the Back Pocket as I like to call it. Kerching. Tax is too high! Pensions are too low! Everyone has money issues - even if they're financially solvent - and they demand solutions. So why criticise students for learning from the Expert Whingers of their elder generations?

But there's more to it than this. It is possible this is unintentional, but the fact remains that no matter how much complaining students do, they will not change the system for them while they are in University. It is too late. Even if they successfully lobby for change, they will have long since graduated before they get a chance to reap the benefits. Changes in student funding are normally planned so they do not hit those who are currently going through the system. It would be unfair.

So who are the students campaigning for? In many cases it is not understood, but most realise this fact that they are stuck with what they've got. So, in fact, they are campaigning on behalf of those who are still in school - those who don't have a voice. Student campaigns on tuition fees are actually because they want to ensure that future students don't suffer the way they have. In many respects, what looked like Me First economics is in fact selfless acts - which they won't be rewarded for - but, if they are successful, will help out all of those who come to University after them.

Maybe students are more concerned about social equality than everyone else, despite the growing stereotype of being only out for themselves. Perhaps they are in fact putting everyone else to shame. Maybe you don't have any right to look down your nose at them.

A plurality of students are going to support the Lib Dems this election. The last election was held in June 2001 - by which time most students have finished the academic year and have gone home. Thus, last time, there was almost no "student vote" to speak of.

This time, there will likely be 1,000 or more students in student constituencies who will vote. This figure will rise in areas that have been specifically targeted, such as Cardiff Central where the Lib Dems can taste victory. In isolated cases like this, there is a chance it will have an impact. But even in student constituencies, we're not going to see tectonic shifts in support.

What's frustrating is that if mobilised, this section of the electorate could deliver surprises. Norwich South - Charles Clarke's constituency - could be lost if one party made a concerted effort to get students registered and then relentlessly pulled for their vote on the big day with a push to get out the vote. Although they do split their vote many ways, in certain areas if they are targeted well, there is a signficant chance that they will come out to deliver an upset. After all, how many of us voters wouldn't turnout and tactically vote if there was a chance to ditch Clarke. But this effect is amplified with youth and student voters. The significant majority of students don't consider themselves affiliated to a party - and in that sense they are the most volatile of the electorate. It's not a great leap to vote for someone even if it's just to deliver a blow to the system.

This could have been exploited in this election. As it stands, the impact will be minimal. But it's one to bear in mind in the future. As I've said before - we have this ridiculous electoral system... we might as well have some fun with it.


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