Anna Firth is a Barrister, and a Councillor on Sevenoaks District Council. She contested Canterbury in the 2019 General Election.
Queues of students in pyjamas waiting to vote before 9am at the university polling station in Canterbury last month were not encouraging. The hope that students might have packed up and taken their vote home for Christmas turned out to be way off the mark. Thankfully, media speculation that another “youthquake” might deny the Conservative a majority proved false. It did, however, cost us a number of university seats, particularly in the south.
Since first getting the vote in 1970, undergraduate student numbers have ballooned from 400,000 in 1970 to 1.8 million in 2017/2018. Together with half a million postgraduates and 400,000 staff, university students and staff now comprise nearly three million voters. That is one of the largest, single voting blocks in the UK – over six per cent of the total UK electorate, almost twice the size of the NHS workforce and vastly more potent being so geographically concentrated.
Historically a low-turnout group, the last two elections have seen the university vote morph into a highly motivated Labour block vote. Some 64 per cent of registered voters in this age group voted in the 2017 UK General Election according to Ipsos MORI, and YouGov estimate a continued significant turnout last month. The remaining red dots across various parts of the country increasingly resemble a map of our university towns and cities.
Canterbury is an obvious case in point – but arguably the same could be said for seats such as Warwick and Leamington, Reading East, Portsmouth South, Plymouth, Sutton & Devonport and Bristol North West, to name but a few.
All these seats swung to Labour in 2017 on the back Corbyn’s offer to scrap tuition fees, a disastrous Liberal Democrat campaign and Momentum-led student activism. All looked set to comfortably return to the fold last October when the election was called. So what went wrong?
Firstly, not surprisingly, the national Brexit message was toxic in university seats, many of which voted strongly Remain. Secondly, despite the Liberal Democrats recovering to 18.2 per cent across the South East, in a number of university towns and cities the Lib Dem vote either failed to recover sufficiently or dropped. Finally, Labour and Momentum ran a far more effective social media campaign targeted at students.
On the positive side, in Canterbury we polled 45.3 per cent of the vote, the highest Conservative vote share for nearly 30 years. Indeed, 27,182 votes would have been enough to win the constituency at every other election in the last 150 years – bar this one!
The seismic transformation in Canterbury was continued high student turnout. On a cold, wet December day, 74 per cent of students turned out to vote at the main campus polling station, up from 55 per cent in 2017, only 17 per cent in 2015 – and compared with 67 per cent nationally. Not surprisingly, we estimated some 85 per cent of these votes were for Labour.
So what is driving such a seismic shift in student turnout and what should be our response as a Party?
Causes of increased student engagement
The EU referendum, austerity, generation rent and student debt are the common explanations for the recent surge in millennial voting. However, a recent student focus group suggested social media remains the big game-changer. As one student put it: “Of course, you are going to vote. You are not going to risk being shamed by your friends on social media”.
Students in Canterbury were swamped by Labour- and Momentum-led Facebook adverts every day in the run up to polling day. And whilst our own Facebook social media campaign was a quantum improvement on 2017, we are still communicating “at” not “with” young people. We also had nothing to counter the tsumami of news videos on “inhumane” Tory cuts to the NHS, austerity cuts to help the rich, Bullingdon Club toffs, etc, etc.
One response is to say “Who cares – they will never vote for us anyway. Why not focus on winning more seats in the North or on the more resolvable 30 – 39s?” The problem with this approach is that it allows millions of young people to spend three or four of their formative years in hard left/liberal-leaning institutions, risking a generation that will take years to switch away from Labour.
A practical response would be to ensure that all General Elections take place outside term-time, preferably in September. Elections, however, are rarely entirely within our control even without the Fixed Term Parliament Act, so a fairer solution would be for students to vote only at their permanent home and not at their university address.
This would be very popular with local residents. Over the last few weeks I have received numerous emails from incensed permanent residents furious that their choice of MP has been made by part-time residents who will be gone by the next election, and who have little interest in long-term issues such better roads, schools and healthcare. With postal votes so easily and freely available, fortunately, there is no risk of disenfranchising students studying in far-flung universities.
Aspirational polices focused on the environment, opportunity and home ownership
More importantly, however, we need to welcome the next generation of voters with an aspirational message of freedom, opportunity and progressive social change. Ideas might include:-
The environment – this is the key issue with young people, and potential policies could include
- Greater use of tax incentives to tackle plastic pollution, wildlife and ocean conservation.
- Reduced university fees on all degrees that include significant environmental elements;
- Cosmetics tested on animals being labelled in a similar manner to cigarette labelling;
- Clothes and other retail items not manufactured with exploited labour being labelled as such and vice-versa.
Tuition fees – given that 60 per cent of student debts are unlikely to be repaid, tuition fees continue to disenfranchise millions of young people for no reason. This and the punitive rate of interest on student loans, currently 5.4 per cent, needs to be looked at again.
Target profession programme – University loans should be waived for students going into the caring professions. This would send a powerful message that Conservatives “care” and would be largely costless given many earnings fall beneath the repayment threshold.
Internship programmes – This is now the main hurdle to high level employment, particularly for those from less advantaged backgrounds. Better access to internship/work experience for post-graduate students would be very popular.
Home ownership – The manifesto proposal for long-term, fixed rate mortgages which slashes the cost of deposits was popular on the doorstep but not real enough to cut through. With three million people in the UK estimated to be trapped in rental accommodation as they can’t save for a deposit this proposal needs to become a reality.
Building on last month’s historic victory depends on winning back university seats. Momentum and Labour have persuaded students that a tired rehash of 1970s socialism is the solution to all our problems. It is not. For the sake of future generations, we need to make the case more powerfully, especially on social media. The prize will not come easily but is huge and available if we are brave enough to take it.