Student vote could swing 2015 election, suggests study

By Judith Burns
Education reporter, BBC News

image captionStudents could swing the outcome in about 10 marginal constituencies, suggests a study

Students could tip the balance of power at the next general election, according to analysis of their voting patterns from 1997 to the present day.

They could affect the outcome in about 10 constituencies, the study says.

The allegiance of students vote is generally most affected by changes to student finance, says the Higher Education Policy Institute.

This time Labour could be the main beneficiary - but many students are not registered to vote, says HEPI.

The report says a new system, brought in since the last general election, means voters have to be registered individually, instead of by household. It says that creates a problem because students change address frequently.

'Bureaucratic hurdles'

It calls on local councils, universities and central government to help students overcome these "new bureaucratic hurdles".

The research, which tracked student voting patterns since 1997, says there was a surge to the Liberal Democrats in 2001, 2005 and 2010 because they promised to scrap tuition fees.

But the trebling of fees in England by the coalition has damaged both Liberal Democrat and Conservative prospects among students, say the authors.

They predict a student swing to Labour at the 2015 general election.

The report draws on figures from the British Election Study which suggest the proportion of students who would vote Liberal Democrat dropped from 44% in 2010 to 13% in early 2014.

Despite students making up only 3% of the population, they could affect the result in about 10 seats, particularly as the opinion polls are very close, it says.

Prof Stephen Fisher of Trinity College Oxford, who carried out the analysis, said it was "remarkable" the extent to which changes in the student vote had reflected party policies on student finance.

image captionA degree now costs an individual student three times what it did under the previous government

"But if anything, the student vote seems to have reacted more strongly to apparent breaches of promise."

He said, if maintained, current trends would see Liberal Democrats doing "noticeably worse in constituencies with large numbers of student voters".

HEPI director and co-author Nick Hillman said for students to make a difference, they "must register to vote, turn out to vote and live in marginal constituencies".

But he warned the new system could limit the numbers registered.

"If the opinion polls are a guide to the next election, then students could just swing the overall result and hold the keys to power.

"Students have as much right to be on the electoral roll as everyone else and it would be a tragedy if the new registration system weakened their voice to a whisper."

'Undermined trust'

The National Union of Students says 73% of students are now registered, thanks to its voter registration drive.

President Toni Pearce said most students did not identify with particular political parties and the Lib Dems' broken tuition fee promise had "severely undermined trust in politicians".

Today's students endure "financial hardships and future debt unimaginable even to the students of 10 years ago, and we stand to suffer far worse prospects than our parents. I'd say we're getting a pretty raw deal," said Ms Pearce.

"Students hold the key to the next general election, and we will be making sure they use it."

She said an election hub on the NUS website would show students where their vote would be most influential by comparing their home and university constituencies.

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