What do Nick Clegg, the mysterious YOLO, and the barrage of other names you’ve been subjected to this week have in common? Lack of self-respect, less-than acerbic wit or an inability to keep promises? No, of course not! They’re all out for your vote, and this year, the Students’ Union Leader Election campaigns run alongside the Parliamentary election (though with considerably less funding from less-than-reputable sources in the Cayman Islands).
The juxtaposition of these two events allows the mind to wander to a salient question, whether you believe in the legitimacy of either democratic system or not: can the Student body be seen as a microcosm of the population as a whole? With what’s promising to be a landmark General Election, will student turnout in the SU elections prove to be predictive, or will Russell Brand’s “Don’t Vote” become the rallying cry of our generation, and pour a bucket of apathy on the both?
According to Ipsos Mori, turnout in the 18-24 age group for General Elections has been on a largely downward trend since the 1980s, bottoming out at 37% in 2005. Conversely, the trend in voting at the SU elections follows the opposite trajectory, rising from 2,553 votes cast in 2006 (11% of the student population) to 11,501 (35.8%) in 2014. In fact, the University of Nottingham reported the best voter turnout in the country last year.
“With what’s promising to be a landmark General Election, will student turnout in the SU elections prove to be predictive?”
What can explain these differences? Despite the fact that the SU candidacy and the General Election are worlds apart, in terms of electoral procedure and also influence, perhaps more insights can be elicited from an analysis of the demographics turning up to vote. According to the official debrief of the SU Presidential election of 2014, 41.74% of Undergraduates turned out to vote, whereas only 13.21% of Postgraduates made the same commitment. Age underpins a great amount of the difference between the two groups, and age-related discrepancies can of course be found in the national voting statistics, with 44% of the 18-24 years group voting in 2010, compared with 76% of the 65+ group (Ipsos Mori) The factor unifying these differences could be simple disengagement from the political system:
“Why would I even bother turning up? The Presidential election will have literally no effect on what I’m doing here” – Tom, Postgraduate student
“I voted the same way as my parents at the last general election. I’m not sure I’ll vote this time; there’s nothing to excite me as a young voter” – Jess, 4th year
Postgraduate students may harbour the same feelings of distrust or apathy for the Presidential nominees as young voters do for prospective MPs and the political system as a whole. The SU also acknowledges (in previous reports) that votes are more likely to come from the Halls and Faculties which the nominees are linked to – again contributing to the exclusion of Postgraduate students.
“Postgraduate students may harbour the same feelings of distrust or apathy for the Presidential nominees as young voters do for prospective MPs and the political system as a whole”
Despite ostensibly opposing trends, comparisons can therefore be drawn between the groups who vote least at both student and national elections. Voter engagement is of course not necessarily just a function of age, and MPs, Presidential nominees, and the voting systems themselves need to extend a hand further towards disenfranchised groups – hopefully in time for the forthcoming ballots. After all, what can be said for a democracy if it does not involve the people it serves?
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