Comment: Students could swing the general election – if they register

By Stephen Fisher

Neither Labour nor the Conservative party have managed to establish a firm lead ahead of the general election, giving students the opportunity to swing the result. That was one of the conclusions of a report I was a co-author to on Monday from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).

As some have suggested, there are a few ifs behind the claim. Some are bigger than others. The big one, as the report illustrates, is registration. The new Individual Electoral Registration system, which replaces the old household system, affects students more than other groups because they are highly mobile and ill-served by the transitional arrangements. Some councils and universities are making more efforts than others, but it seems likely that under-registration of students could increase and be quite substantial.

The other ifs are much smaller assumptions. Turnout among registered students was lower than average for the population as a whole in 2010, but higher than that for other young electors. Most likely student turnout will rise or fall at much the same rate as for other groups in 2015.

Another if is whether the voting patterns of students in surveys and at local and European elections since 2010 persist. There is very good reason to believe they will.  The British Election Study data show a massive drop in student vote intention for the Liberal Democrats from 44% in 2010 to 13% in 2014, much more than the 15 point overall drop. These figures are for England only, where the full force of the 2010 tuition fee increases are being felt, but actually students in Scotland and Wales seem to be reacting similarly.

Even if the negative student reaction to the Liberal Democrat breach of promise on tuition fees attenuates somewhat before the election, it is still likely to be strong, and strong enough to affect the results in around ten constituencies. This was the basis for the claim that students could swing the election.

It is not as though students could pick between a majority Labour or majority Conservative government, but in a hung parliament ten seats here or there could significantly change the parliamentary arithmetic for the government formation process.  In particular, the fewer seats the Liberal Democrats have, the less likely it will be that they could form a majority government with either of the two main parties, complicating things even more than in 2010.

The Hepi report fleshes out the details, discussing which seats might turn on student votes in which political circumstances, as well as analysing the issues with Individual Electoral Registration, turnout and the history of student voting in response higher education funding policy since 1997.

Stephen Fisher is associate professor in Political Sociology and the fellow and tutor in Politics at Trinity College, Oxford.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.