At the beginning of August, a YouGov poll showed the Conservative Party’s popularity to be on the rise. Despite the clear divisions across the UK, highlighted by the EU referendum, the Conservatives opened up a 14 point lead over the Labour Party. Labour enjoys a higher amount of support and membership from students and young people than any other UK political party; in the 2015 general election Labour won double the amount of votes from students than the Conservatives did. Labour is in favour of reintroducing EMA, increasing funding for research/science, and reintroducing student grants, as well as several other policies which are viewed favourably by students. The consistent decline in Labour’s support in opinion polls over the summer is highly concerning for students, as it represents a decline in electorate wide support for the party that vocally supports students with its views and policies.
From the legacy of Tony Blair and the Iraq War, to the divide within the party between the majority of its MPs and its leader, there are clearly several events which have damaged Labour’s popularity and credibility amongst voters. But whatever the reasons are for this decline, the overall effect has been to create a void and disconnect between the student population and Westminster.
The Conservative Party have enjoyed a surge in support despite introducing policies which go against the interests of the majority of students, such as scrapping student grants, reducing funding in education and research and raising tuition fees. This seemingly demonstrates that a political party can win elections without significant support from students: as a group we are less likely to vote in Westminster elections than the majority of the population, causing politicians to make less effort to win over the student vote.
The views and interests of young people must be well represented in politics. Students are a two million strong group of diverse ethnicities and social classes. These two million voices however, have been increasingly marginalised within Westminster – the recent Coalition and Conservative governments have done little to support students and with the decline in support for the Labour Party, this trend looks likely to continue.
There are still parties who have experienced a surge in support and look to represent student voices and interests. The Greens and the SNP aim policies at improving the lives of students and young people, however their influence is limited. The Greens lack much influence across the UK as a whole and the SNP can only control the education of Scottish students studying within Scotland – they lack enough MPs in Westminster to block legislation affecting education within the rest of the UK. Labour is the political party with the most ability to positively influence and control policy related to students and young people, with the chance to apply pressure in opposition, or implement policy whilst in government. However, Labour is only able to do this if it is united and well supported, which polls show it is not.
This decline in Labour’s popularity over the summer should be worrying for students. It shows that, despite introducing policy that goes against the views and interests of the majority of students, the Conservatives can still win elections. It demonstrates a widening between the interests of students, and those of MPs and the government who are supposed to represent them; it would be deeply concerning if this became reflected in a lowering of youth political participation. But despite this, a large number of students are politically active, and involved in local campaigns and demonstrations, applying pressure on politicians at a local and national level.
Political parties often use student apathy and low turnout as fuel to marginalise student voters in favour of other groups. The student population in cities is often concentrated in small areas, thus our vote can be absolutely crucial in key marginals. If a higher number of students registered to vote, the student vote would be more sought after by politicians, and it turn this would become reflected in their policies. Higher turnout amongst students would mean that parties which do more to represent student voices – such as Labour – would perform better in polls and elections. As students, we need to harness the power we are sitting on, to ensure fair representation, and that our voices are heard.