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It’s the economy (Brexit) stupid

As many students grapple with how they should vote in an election that will define their futures, the latest survey data shows Brexit is the key issue for them. The major parties are now making wild promises of astounding investment to attract voters. But Brexit is going to overshadow everything. That is because it has profound long term economic consequences that will affect students in their future careers. Their current financial problems are important but are no longer an issue as any proposed changes in grants and fees are unlikely to benefit them before they graduate. Overcoming climate change will also have massive infrastructure and economic consequences that students will be considering. We can expect other voters to face similar dilemmas and the old order will be overturned in a very volatile election that will define the 21st century.

Update Note added on 9th November 2019:
The latest YouGov poll of voting intentions (Regional voting intentions show both main parties down everywhere, with Labour hit particularly hard) further strengthens the idea that Brexit is the defining issue for many voters and not only students. It shows that the electorate is polarising towards either end of the Leave/Remain Brexit spectrum. This mimics the logic of Northern Ireland where voters tend to vote against what they fear and mistrust. These being nationalism or unionism. In the rest of the UK, it's fear and mistrust of the EU vs mistrust of a Brexit government. The result is rising support for either the Liberal Democrats or the Brexit Party that have very clear standpoints. They are gaining ground at the expense of the Conservative and Labour parties in what is now a volatile election that could become incendiary if not managed well.
The latest results of an ongoing survey of current students conducted by Youthsight were released this week. Last week we saw data related to the likely voting patterns of students ‘The Student Vote | October 2019’ (see also TEFS 1st November 2019 ‘Election 2019: a one-issue election for students’). Now we have results concerning the role of Brexit in the coming election in December and a short report entitled ‘Guest author Nick Hillman asks: 'Will students vote tactically over Brexit? What does the latest polling tell us?'. This was also reported by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) this week (New polling suggests many students will vote tactically over Brexit).

Taken together, the data of nine waves of surveys conducted since 2017 provide the best insight into the influence that students may exert on the upcoming election. The views of students appear to be changing and many have concerns that also appear to diverge from those of the rest of the electorate. But it may be that the electorate as a whole are changing their minds. Of those students that voted in the 2016 referendum, 13% indicate that they would change their minds. Although the survey data does not show this overtly, the 13% figure is suspiciously close to difference of the 24% who voted leave in 2016 minus the 9% who would vote leave now.

How are students likely to vote in the election?

The latest data covers the ninth wave of 1047 students who were surveyed in the first week of October. This was before a Brexit deal was stuck with the EU by the Johnson government. In July, 30% indicated that they would vote Labour. By October, this had increased to 36%. However, this is well below the 62% high of 2017. The Conservative vote remains low at 9% and is declining. This alone indicates worries about the impact of Brexit. Add to this the realisation that Liberal Democrat support amongst students has increased to 18%, from a low of 8% in 2017, and the Brexit effect seems to be strengthening their remain stance.

It’s the economy stupid.

This was the defining statement of the Clinton presidential campaign in 1992. His campaign leader, James Carville coined the phrase that defined the basis of the election (see TEFS 4th May 2018 ‘Social Mobility: It’s the economy, stupid’). This adage may be well worn and axiomatic. But its relevance may not be so evident today. Hillman in his report for Youthsight rightly notes that “Any candidate who wants to secure the support of local students needs to engage with what they say about a range of issues and avoid treating them as one-dimensional or obsessed only about their financial position." There are certainly a variety of views amongst students as I have found in recent discussions with some of them. They are concerned about their financial position and many are struggling with it. They also see the current situation as unfair and want maintenance grants brought back and the loan burden lessened with lower interest rates. Yet this may not be a major issue for the election; even if the economy remains over-arching. This is because Brexit and the economy are intertwined. Indeed, all issues, including climate change, will have an economic consequence. In terms of personal finance, many current students now accept that their fees will have to be repaid. The election promises offer no change for them at this point. However, we await the full manifestos of each party. The Labour ‘no fees’ promise will kick in after they graduate at the earliest. The Conservatives may reduce fees but this has the same time factor. A graduate tax proposed by the Liberal Democrats is laced with uncertainty. A student might ask about their future fee repayments being replaced by a graduate tax of indeterminate size and progression. Nevertheless, the economy overall matters to students in the future and how it impacts their career aspirations. Indeed, many will try to leave the UK if Brexit happens and this is a question that they should be asked. As usual, most are confident of a career to expect to earn enough to repay their fees. But inflation linked to Brexit is a concern. Those already graduated since the referendum of 2016 will have been confronted with the reality of housing and other costs as they plan for the future. Their vote is also crucial.

The survey is a snapshot in time.

The Youthsight survey shows that a surprising 59% think “supporting Brexit is more important to me than the party I actually vote for?” This is up 9% from July and up from 20% in 2017. The majority will consider changing their allegiances in December and this number is on the rise. If this represents the electorate as a whole, we can expect old allegiances to crumble. Those students willing to vote tactically was recorded as 53%, but this was the first time the question was asked.

Bearing in mind many students in 2016 are no longer students, and that they are likely to retain their views shown in earlier polls, then the trend away from Brexit and towards pro-remain seems inexorable. The questions for these former students remain the same. Tactical voting may apply to many of them and they may also have a choice of constituency if they retain contact with a family home whilst working elsewhere. They are just as important in the trend towards a remain vote.

The tactical dilemma is not simple.

With the ability of many students and former students to vote in either of two constituencies, there comes the dilemma of which offers the best leverage. There are now many online guides that offer advice and guidance. The Guardian offers the simplest to use search engine of postcode linked to both constituencies with ‘Students: will your vote be more effective at home or university? – interactive’. It is geared to comparing constituencies for students and suggests that, where there is a large majority for one party, it might be best to switch to a more marginal seat with more impact. It does not make specific suggestions such as much criticised the Best for Britain site that doesn’t cover Scotland or Northern Ireland.

The Guardian site is as simple as it gets and, as a result, does not catch the nuances of the various constituency dynamics. There is now considerable ‘volatility’ as many other voters are thinking tactically. A good example is Edinburgh South. There are numerous students in the area and many are from England with some active in the Labour party. But with a Labour majority of over 15,514 and a 74.1% turnout (the largest majority in Scotland), it might seem that another vote ‘stacking up’ Labour would go noticed and could be better used elsewhere. Yet the constituency is vehemently opposed to nationalism and has been strongly Conservative in the past. The main threat to a widely popular and able MP comes from how the Labour party and its leadership is perceived. An attempt by the leadership of Unite union to deselect the sitting MP, Ian Murry, in October was reported in many media outlets (see The Guardian 23rd October 2019 and The Edinburgh Evening News). This sent shock waves across the constituency and a packed meeting of party members voted overwhelmingly to support Murray. Despite Unite suffering a self-inflicted blow, the damage to Labour has been done. Many long-standing Labour supporters left the meeting vowing to leave the party and look elsewhere. The selection procedures that allowed one union to do this, supported by the leadership of Labour, inflicted a terrible shock. It may be symptomatic of a wider problem in Labour and the electorate will not be far behind in showing their concerns. The student vote could be even more important in such a volatile environment. The defections and resignations of experienced sitting MPs, and attempted deselections elsewhere, must have an impact on decisions made by students and they will have to be vigilant.

A matter of trust.

It is generally accepted by most people that the government is not to be trusted and this now extends across the political spectrum. Students do not seem to differ much in this respect. In the latest survey, 83% believe that the government are doing badly at negotiating an exit from the EU. Johnson is not trusted to get a good deal by 84%; worse than the 83% not trusting May. Corbyn does marginally better with 70% not trusting him to get a good deal. But the answer might be different if the formidable negotiator, Keir Starmer was considered. Despite support for the Liberal Democrats rising, no question was asked about how Swinson would fair in getting a good deal. It is, of course, a redundant question as they would not be dealing in anything other than remain.

The full Youthsight data for all of the nine survey waves are available to download at: Brexit tables - multi-wave including latest wave - fieldwork 3rd - 7th Oct 2019
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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