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Election 2019: a one issue election for students

The electorate is polarised on either side of a Brexit chasm that is unlikely to see compromise. Many may vote strategically for any party likely to counter what they do not trust and what they fear the most. Students may set aside their concerns about fairness, fees, and maintenance grants and vote on Brexit as the defining issue. The fallout of Brexit will affect their working conditions as their careers develop. Seeing their lecturers plan for industrial action on some of these concerns this week will profoundly affect their thinking. The hope is that mobilising their strategic votes will restore some balance and faith in our democracy as students lead the way.

With the date of the next election, set for Thursday 12th December this week, there comes the realisation that time is running out. Parliament and the ‘executive’ government have failed to make key decisions about our future. The Brexit crisis has consumed most of their time as other pressing needs are side-lined. Low and behold, the solution has been to go back to the people yet again to seek a mandate. Since this decision is based solely on the impasse between government and parliament concerning an ‘illusive’ Brexit deal, it follows that this is now simply a one issue election. Even with this being apparent, the decision about which way to vote is tempered by the potential fallout from Brexit and who can manage it. It seems the electorate are displaying two characteristics regardless of their voting intentions. Firstly, we have all become confused about what Brexit means and what the EU represents. We have been sold anything from a ‘hard’ Brexit to a deal that comes close to remain. Secondly there is a crisis of confidence in government being capable and trustworthy. The lies and misrepresentations are catching up with those that seek to govern. Those seeking Brexit seem to span a desire for a socialist utopia to those seeking to make money and exploit workers and various hues in between.

The student vote matters.

The decision to hold the election on Thursday 12th December seems to some cynics to be to all about splitting the student vote. This is on the second last day of term for many institutions. The assumption is that they will be leaving before the Friday. Unless they attend Oxford or Cambridge and are already back at their comfortable home addresses. But there is some debate regarding how important their vote might be. The Higher Education Policy Institute in a well considered article (The student vote: does it matter in 2019? Which seats could it affect? How is Corbyn faring among students?) looked at the influence of students. It seems their effect might have been limited in the past except for a few cases. It might be that they ‘stack up’ existing Labour majorities in some constituencies. But one thing for sure is that all votes count and more strategic voting by students, where they see their vote being more effective, is likely.

What might students decide?

This will be unlike any other election. The polarised electorate are split on the EU. It is a dangerous polarisation where compromise is unlikely to be conceded on either side. More and more it resembles the fear politics of Northern Ireland where unionists and nationalists vote for anything that is overtly against the opposing side. Mainstream parties are either poorly organised or like Labour, despite thousands of party members, don’t stand candidates. Only the Alliance Party manages to fill the gap. The divide between remain and leave is just as dangerous yet must be acted out. 

The divided parliament currently reflects the divided electorate and this may act out again in a new divided parliament.  Students find themselves in a unique position in the midst of this conflict. They know that they can register to vote at two locations and they are advised to do this at this stage but must then decide where to cast their vote later. Indeed, the sudden surge in voter registrations for 18-24 year olds probably reflects this. The Government’s ‘Voter Registration Dashboard’ shows a large surge on new registrations amongst those under 25 years old. This is followed closely by those between 25 and 34. Figure 1 shows the overall developing situation. 

This time, there will be much more thought put into deciding where their vote might have the most impact. ‘Stacking up’ the Labour vote in their university address might be seen as less effective when it comes down to Brexit. It may look better to go for their home constituency and opt for the party likely to counter anything against their view. In terms of countering Brexit and its fallout, this may mean voting for the Liberal Democrats as the most likely to overcome the Conservatives. They can also wait to hear what the various parties promise and many will decide in the last few days.

Brexit will dominate proceedings.

The student polling company ‘Youthsight’ has analysed student voting intentions with ‘The Student Vote | October 2019’ this week. The data from 1000 students seems to suggest that Brexit is having a bigger influence than many might expect. This is evident when the popularity of party leaders is measured. Popularity for Jeremy Corbyn is waning and he is now in danger of being overtaken by Jo Swinson of the Liberal Democrats. Boris Johnson has fallen to a very low level of popularity. It seems that the past misdemeanours of the Liberal Democrats, when reneging on student fees promises, may be forgotten as they appear to be gaining in popularity. Youthsight conclude that the general trend in an increased turnout amongst students is likely to continue because of the Brexit issue.

The position of the parties on Brexit might dominate the thinking of most students regardless of other promises made. Indeed, subsequent policies of a new government may simply arise from their Brexit stance that lies at the core of policy. For example, students might wish to retain and improve workers’ rights under the protection of the EU. Brexit offers no such guarantee. It will not have escaped their attention that the so called ‘baby boomers’ fought hard for better working conditions and benefits. Any worsening of the prospects for current students is down to a failure of another generation to support trade unions and help in their ongoing mission. They are now confronted by their lecturers taking strike action on protecting pensions and pay and conditions. The results out yesterday of the University and College Union (UCU) ballots (UCU members back strikes over both pensions and pay and conditions) for strike action show a hardening of attitudes. The way forward to improve their own rights is there for them to see. After all, they will bear the brunt of social changes if a rebalancing of employment protection is not carried out. Brexit may determine what is possible or what actually happens.

Will fees be important and trump Brexit?

As HEPI noted in their article cited earlier, the issue of fees may have been lost in the past. This is despite Labour promises of no fees, or the possibility of lower fees recommended by Augar earlier this year. Most likely to attract students would be a promise to bring back maintenance grants out of a desire for more equality and fairness for those in need. I expect every party will put this on the table. But their Brexit stance will surely dominate. Labour will hold a second EU referendum, despite the leadership appearing unconvincing on this in the recent past. The Liberal Democrats are clearer. They will revoke Article 50 and stop Brexit in its tracks. Increasing support for this amongst students may spread across the rest of the electorate. The Conservatives will follow through on their deal despite hiving off Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The knock on effects on the union with Scotland seem to be of no consequence to them. If that doesn’t work, then they will revert to a ‘no deal’ Brexit if they can command a majority in parliament. The Brexit party are popular and similarly could not be clearer on their position. They do not want any deal. The choices are stark and many may vote strategically for the most likely to counter what they fear most.

Can students lead the way?

The electorate is now dangerously polarised. Many of those supporting Brexit are angry and express this with some volume, as was evident with the large police presence for their demonstration outside parliament yesterday. Others may see Brexit as dangerous but wish to keep away from what is an increasingly fractious debate. They will vote in silence. Students may be leading the way as they will be affected the most in time. We should listen to their concerns and perhaps consider voting with them for a better more sustainable future. Fees, maintenance grants, equality and fairness are important to students. But who they trust and what is possible may boil down to how Brexit is handled. Fear for their own future will drive strategic voting.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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