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The Student Swing Vote: are we, the student electorate, more powerful than we think?

The political landscape is, frankly, muddled.

The three big parties are widely distrusted; nationalists such as the SNP are the dominant force in devolved Britain; and the new political force of UKIP has won back-to-back by-elections. This is not to mention that opinion polls place Labour and Conservatives on identical percentage points (locked on 32% according to 5th December YouGov poll). Perhaps more than any other time, students may hold the balance of power and have the opportunity to control the outcome of the upcoming general election.

However the Liberal Democrat involvement in the tuition fee rise has, by contrast, produced a highly emotive response amongst the student electorate

The Higher Education Policy Unit (HEPI) published a paper entitled “Do Students swing elections?” (Fischer and Hillman). It described how nationally, students’ electoral impact has been limited in recent times. Despite the legislation passed by Labour in 2004, which sought to triple the maximum tuition fee from 2006 onwards, the party went on to win the 2005 General Election.  However the Liberal Democrat involvement in the tuition fee rise has, by contrast, produced a highly emotive response amongst the student electorate. The LibDems have recently produced a “Get the Facts: Tuition Fees” online leaflet which states bluntly that “Nick has apologised for this”. HEPI has described how “even Nick Clegg’s seat may not be safe”. It is clear that Liberal Democrat support has plummeted; in the aforementioned YouGov poll, the Lib Dems garnered a measly 6% of the vote.

Green leader, Natalie Bennett, told the Guardian that the Greens had high hopes for several seats in university cities

UKIP, and their chain-smoking, beer-swigging leader, Nigel Farage, have received most attention when talking of non-traditional political parties, but this is unlikely to hold much sway within the broadly liberal student vote. A September poll by YouthSight placed UKIP at just 6% of the vote, tempering fears that young students may be enticed by the allure of radical politics. A much more likely student voting pattern will see a greater level of competition from the Green Party in those constituencies with a large student vote. The Greens appeal to the typical student voter; Green leader, Natalie Bennett, told the Guardian that the Greens had high hopes for several seats in university cities, such as Norwich and Bristol. “I think there are probably very few Liberal Democrat voters in universities,” she said. “And that’s true of lecturers and staff as well as students.”

All of this is, of course, reliant on students voting at all.

The next election will be the first time that the system of Individual Electoral Registration; whereby voters will have to register to vote individually rather than as a household. The Government has attempted to address the potential lack of voter registration by threatening an £80 fine to those who do not register to vote or ‘opt out’. The risk of a fine will without doubt garner the attention of cash strapped students.

Only 51.7% of students voted in the 2010 General Election, and it seems somewhat wishful thinking in hoping that this figure will rise

There is still a general air of mistrust towards British politicians: a survey by NUS demonstrates that 77% of students don’t think politicians can be trusted. Only 51.7% of students voted in the 2010 General Election, and it seems somewhat wishful thinking in hoping that this figure will rise. However, the most recent NUS polling suggests that 73% of students are registered to vote, and if there was a general election tomorrow almost three quarters would be likely or highly likely to vote.

The power of the student electorate clearly exists; it remains to be seen as to whether it shall be fully harnessed by political leaders in the run up to the General Election.

Luke Holland

Image courtesy of secretlondon123 via Flickr

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