THE BLOG

How the Student Vote Could Swing Seats in 2015

02/12/2014 09:52 GMT | Updated 31/01/2015 10:59 GMT

I have more reason than most to think students determine elections. When I stood in Cambridge at the 2010 election, Nick Clegg visited the city to sign the National Union of Students' pledge to vote against tuition fees. On election day, there were long queues of students at polling stations and the gap in votes between the winner and me was considerably smaller than the total number of students in the city.

It would be easy to draw the conclusion that students are a particularly powerful group of voters. But Cambridge is unusual. New research by Professor Stephen Fisher of Oxford University, published in Do students swing elections?, suggests they could swing the result in only around ten seats at the May 2015 general election - mainly but not wholly to the advantage of the Labour Party.

Of course, if the next election is as close as the pollsters say, then a small number of seats make the difference between winning office and languishing on the opposition benches for five years. Ignoring students might be more perilous than in the past. But we do not know for certain, which explains why Labour are finding it so hard to decide whether promising to spend billions on reducing tuition fees is a good idea.

Moreover, there is an extra complicating factor this time around. To make a difference, students must live in marginal constituencies and vote differently to the rest of the local population. But they must also register to vote in the first place. Britain is in the midst of shifting from household electoral registration to Individual Electoral Registration, which puts the onus on each person to get themselves on the roll.

The new system has advantages but it does not work so well for highly-mobile groups. While 87 per cent of voters in England and Wales were automatically transferred to the new system over the summer of 2014, students fell through the cracks. In University ward in Lancaster, just 0.1 per cent of the electorate were transferred successfully.

Despite the current austerity measures, older people have never had it so good. Free bus passes, free TV licences and Winter Fuel Payments survive, while the Educational Maintenance Allowance has disappeared. If young people do not register to vote, their political voice will become even fainter.

That would be a tragedy, although the solution is an easy one. Anyone who is not registered to vote should dig out their National Insurance Number and visit https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote. The system might be changing, but it is quicker and easier than ever before to register online.

Nick Hillman is Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute