Dr Simon Clarke is an Associate Professor at the University of Reading and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He is also an Oxfordshire County Councillor.
According to an unnamed minister, the Conservative Party relied on “poxy little slogans” in its lame attempt to attract young voters. They go on: “You’ve got to persuade a new generation of people of what’s what”.
Whoever it was, they’re right. In his resignation piece on this site, Nick Timothy said they “feel they lack the opportunities enjoyed by their parents’ generation”.
He’s right too – many do feel that way – but it should also be remembered that many enjoy opportunities that their parents did not, such as relatively easy access to university, and we shouldn’t be shy about pointing this out.
It’s not true that Labour’s ten per cent national uplift in the share of the vote was solely down to students, or indeed younger voters generally, but it’s undeniable that they had a significant impact. It amazes me that at its most left wing, Labour proposed gifting the best part of 30 grand to an 18 year old straight out of Eton or Roedean, but intended to do absolutely nothing for a kid of the same age toiling in a supermarket or building site to pay for it. Talk about taking people for granted.
I’m just as shocked that the Conservatives didn’t remorselessly hammer this point home. Nonetheless, I’m going to reflect on what motivates students to make the voting choices they do.
You see, our Party has not only encouraged students to view themselves as consumers who can vent their displeasure at their lot, a Tory government has actually legislated for it. And guess what, students have done just that.
All highly amusing when they’re sticking it to lefty lecturers for returning a piece of coursework a day late, or for not awarding the lofty mark that they assumed they’re due, or when their tutor hasn’t replied by nine am Monday morning to the email sent on a Sunday afternoon. But not so much when visiting retribution on politicians who they regard as having loaded them with tens of thousands of pounds worth of loans for an education which said politicians got for free.
Here lies the nub of the problem there is absolutely no point in simply preaching on the evils of national debt being piled onto future generations and expect them to swallow it, when we’re seen as the ones heaping considerable personal debt onto them. It just looks deeply phony and dishonest.
We may deride Labour’s proposed abolition of tuition fees as a bribe, but the party that dreamt up the pension triple lock, help to buy, or MIRAS if you want to go back even further, is in no position to be too puritanical.
So am I arguing for a return to free tuition? Absolutely not!
I remember starting at University as if it were yesterday. I’ve spent most of my working life at one institution or other and often think of how much they’ve changed. They’re all smarter, less rag-eared places nowadays. The quality of the accommodation has greatly increased. So has the cost, but then en suite bathrooms and cable TV don’t come cheap and these are the sorts of things that many students demand and are prepared to pay for.
Libraries are brimming with computers (ones that actually work!) and lecture theatres and classrooms have modern facilities. No longer is it a case of chalk and talk, but rather interact with your students as you deliver a PowerPoint presentation. None of this comes cheap and we need frank discussion about whether we want to carry on with increased participation and state of the art facilities. My hunch is that by and large, voters young and old want both and you don’t get anything for nothing.
Nowadays, parents (most of whom by dint of their age did not partake of higher education) are much more involved with their children’s university choices. Politicians need to keep explaining that, amongst other things, fees provide for wider participation and that means a better chance of getting into a more prestigious university than they otherwise might. This is an argument that I regularly use with students and if deployed properly, it really hits home.
This is such an important point because the Russell Group, those universities whose graduates are so sought after by employers, frequently threaten to become fully private institutions (akin to the American Ivy League) if starved of funds. If that were to happen, we would likely see a social separation of students based upon university. While it can be argued that there is already such a divide, government support would eventually become insufficient, limiting attendance at our most prestigious institutions to those with enough money.
We’ve behaved as though the argument for fees had been won when it’s never really been made properly. So how do we engage with student voters, how do we persuade them of what’s what?
The most important thing is to avoid the cringe. Just about the worse thing we could do would be to send out the campus Tory boys and girls to bark the party’s message like an army of daleks; instant turn-off. Also, don’t try to be cool: politicians are not cool in much the same way as academics are not cool, but we still manage to interact effectively with these young adults.
How? Simply by treating them as adults. They really don’t care that we’re not cool. Did Corbyn appeal to them because he was youthful or hip? No, he did not. As incredulous as we might be, they thought him avuncular and caring and he came across as being someone who understood them. The Tories didn’t even try to expose his bossy, authoritarian streak and quick temper.
Finally, a great deal has been written about the Conservative Party’s poor performance with social media, especially given the amount of money spent on it at the general election. This needs to be sharpened up dramatically, and quickly, because it really is how this generation communicates. Coupled with the more traditional forms of media, it will allow the seeds of our message to be sown.
But just like any other societal group, fundamentally that message must appeal to younger voters. It needs to address the matters that they care about and be judged, by them, to be in their interest.