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Nick Hillman

Nick Hillman is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former Special Adviser to David Willetts.

This year, Britain is undertaking “the biggest change to the electoral registration system since the introduction of the universal franchise in 1928″, in the words of the Electoral Commission. Today is the deadline for the first electoral registers for England and Wales to be compiled using Individual Electoral Registration rather than the old household system.

The change does not score highly on the political radar, partly because it has been widely supported – it was begun by Labour and finished by the Coalition – and partly because it is designed to root out fraud, which is clearly desirable. Moreover, transitional arrangements have been put in place to ensure the changeover is smooth.

The vast majority of voters – 87 per cent, or 36 million people – have already been automatically transferred from the old system to the new one. They will be able to vote at the 2015 election without needing to undertake any special activity, and many of them will barely have noticed the change.

But for some groups, the new system is a threat to their political voice. The main transitional arrangements involve matching data on the old electoral registers with public information held by the Department for Work and Pensions. This is effectively pointless for full-time students in temporary accommodation: in one student-heavy ward in Lancaster, the matching rate was just 0.1 per cent.

This matters for two reasons. First, students and other mobile groups have as much right to vote as everyone else and anyone who cares about intergenerational equity should not want to see the voice of young people reduced to a whisper. Secondly, if the next election is close, then students could tip the balance of power.

Our new report out today, Do students swing elections?, considers the registration issues in detail. It also includes work by an independent psephologist, Professor Stephen Fisher of Oxford University, that seeks to answer the question of whether full-time students could determine the outcome of the 2015 general election.

There is a common view that students are so numerous that they must be able to swing elections. That is why Nick Clegg and his fellow Liberal Democrats tried so hard to win the student vote in 2010. Looking ahead, the National Union of Students recently claimed that “students could swing almost 200 seats at the General Election”.

But this is an exaggeration: to make a difference, students need not only to register and turn up, they also need to vote differently from the rest of the local electorate and live in marginal constituencies. The research suggests these factors will only be present in sufficient force to change the result in around 10 seats in 2015.

There is good news and bad for all the main parties in the analysis (which includes a number of important assumptions that are explained in the report), plus good news for the Green Party and less good news for UKIP.

The best news is for Labour. While 44 per cent of students voted Liberal Democrat in 2010, a similar proportion (45 per cent) intend to vote Labour in 2015. Labour could gain around eight seats as a result of students’ voting behaviour – six from the Conservatives and two from the Liberal Democrats. That would prove helpful in their quest to secure a majority in the House of Commons, but it is probably fewer additional seats than many might suppose. This finding is directly relevant to the internal and unfinished Labour Party debate on whether or not to plump for reducing the undergraduate tuition fee cap to £6,000.

The Conservatives’ net position is not quite so bad as might be supposed because they stand to gain two seats from their Coalition partners as a result of students shifting away from the Liberal Democrats. Conservatives do enjoy considerable support among students. At the 2014 European elections, 25 per cent of students voted Conservative, while another 25 per cent voted Green and a similar number (24 per cent) voted Labour. British Election Study data suggest Conservatives could win 29 per cent in 2015, somewhat higher than in 2010.

The analysis is as bad for the Liberal Democrats as the party probably expects. They stand to lose the four seats mentioned above due to the differential behaviour of students at the ballot box, two each to Labour and the Conservatives. But 13 per cent of students say they will vote Liberal Democrat in 2015 compared to just nine per cent of others: although these figures have a biggish margin of error, we can at least say that students are no less likely to vote Liberal Democrat than non-students.

If the Green Party hang on to their one seat and/or win another one of their target constituencies, then this is likely to be down to students. But the Greens are unlikely to do anything like as well in university towns in 2015 as they did at the European elections because many students intend to shift their support to Labour then.

If UKIP succeed in making waves in May 2015, it won’t be due primarily to students, who are only half as likely to support the party as the rest of the population. Their new education spokesman, Paul Nuttall MEP, has studied at four different higher education institutions (according to Wikipedia) and been a lecturer at Liverpool Hope University. But UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, didn’t go to university and the party is struggling to get support from students that is commensurate with their support among other voters.

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