Image: Flickr / UK Parliament

How the upcoming general election could silence students

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt told a Lords Committee class that the next government spending review would be completed before April, and that if the general election is in October this will be “very, very tight”. The Chancellor’s hint at an October election has raised questions on voter turnout: a general election at this time of year is likely to lead to an extremely low number of student voters, one that would affect results.

The latest date the next general election can take place on is January 28 2025. Because of this, it has been assumed by the public that 2024 will be an election year. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak ruled out polling for a general election on May 2, as it was the scheduled date for local elections. This goes against the typical UK election dates; the majority of previous general elections have been held in May or June.

The last October general election was 50 years ago in 1974 – it saw the Labour Party win with a small majority of 3 seats and Harold Wilson remain Prime Minister. News of a potential October election has brought about concern: October is a time where students are starting university or settling into a new academic year; freshers are adapting to a whole new life, and older students are getting used to new academic demands and new accommodation. It is, therefore, a month where registering to vote will be at the back of students’ minds.

Research by the British Youth Council showed that 49% of young people (in the UK) believe that they do not have sufficient education on politics and democracy at school. This lack of education leaves young people not knowing the importance of voting or how to register themselves to vote. This lack of youth knowledge of democracy means that, no matter the time of year, the polls are unlikely to proportionately represent young people, with many not exercising their right to vote. An October election would amplify this already apparent issue.

hundreds of thousands of students [are] being disenfranchised and left without a voice

Paul Greatrix, Registrar at The University of Nottingham

Nehaal Bajwa, Vice-President of Liberation and Equality at the National Union of Students, said: “The danger is that autumn is such a busy time that many students won’t get around to registering themselves.” Even if thorough campaigns educate young people on democracy and encourage them to register to vote, local councils will struggle to process thousands of new registrations. An October election would take place only a couple of weeks after freshers’ weeks, meaning councils would not have time to register new students onto the electoral register.

It is not only freshers that will have to be registered by the council, all students who have moved to new accommodation would have to re-register under their new address. Paul Greatrix, Registrar at The University of Nottingham, told the Observer that the data not being processed in time could lead to: “hundreds of thousands of students being disenfranchised and left without a voice.”

If Hunt’s suggestions are proven to be wrong, and an election does not take place in October, there are still worries about students being silenced. Prior to 2015, universities could register all students at the start of the year. This en masse registration meant that students did not have to individually register themselves. The changing of rules in 2015 means that universities can no longer register their students in this way.

To try and contradict this change, numerous universities have implemented a system where students can sign up to be registered to vote by their university. Upon completing enrolment forms, incoming students can tick a box at the start of the year if they want their details to be given to councils, who can then register them.

Bajwa has urged universities to prioritise introducing this automatic enrolment system as around 100 universities have still not done so. There is a belief that this automatic registration system, run by universities, would massively increase the number of students who are registered to vote, and combat the issue of students not registering themselves. Even if most students go out and vote, a general election does not take place in October, and all universities would implement an automatic registration system for their students, the modern-day voting system still poses issues for young people.

There was no crisis in voter fraud. This is active voter suppression and we need to make sure all students know it’s happened

Nehaal Bajwa, VP at the National Union of Students

England’s May 2023 local elections were the first in Great Britain to require voters to show photo ID before they were issued with a ballot paper. To prepare the public for this change, the Electoral Commission launched an awareness campaign which ran from January 2023 up until the election date. According to statistics from the House of Commons Library, knowledge of the necessity to bring voter ID increased from 23% in December 2022 to 92% in May 2023. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson was turned away recently at the local elections for forgetting to bring valid ID. Though Johnson commended staff at the polling station, his error demonstrates the obstacle valid ID’s present for everyone.

While knowledge of this new requirement is now common, many students will not know that their student ID card is not accepted at voting stations. Bajwa commented, “There was no crisis in voter fraud. This is active voter suppression and we need to make sure all students know it’s happened.” To help students get ID, which will be accepted, NUS has launched a new scheme. Students who sign their petition, which aims to fight laws that make voting harder for young people, gain a free ID from CitizenCard. This CitizenCard ID is worth £18 and is accepted at the polling booths in England, Scotland, and Wales.

The NUS is passionate about students being able to vote, saying on their website that the new voter ID laws “are another barrier to students and young people voting”. In prior elections, students have been decisive in some university towns. In 2017, students helped Labour to win seats in Canterbury and Leeds North West, then in 2019, their votes ensured that Labour kept these seats.

You now need to be pretty organised to apply for ID and register to vote in time, and not many young people on the cusp of a major change in their lives will be

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI

Research conducted by the think tank Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), highlighted the great impact that high student voter turnout can have on election results. This report showed that Labour did significantly better in constituencies with a high student population. Labour’s share of the vote was 25% higher in English student seats than in England as a whole, compared with the number of Conservative votes, which was 25% lower in these seats.

There is a belief amongst young people, perhaps due to the lack of education on democracy in school, that their single vote will have little impact on the election results. Contrary to this belief, the data shows that when young people turn up to vote they can seriously affect who gains seats and therefore, who governs the country.

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, summarised the voting situation for students; he said, “You now need to be pretty organised to apply for ID and register to vote in time, and not many young people on the cusp of a major change in their lives will be.” It is vital that young people vote in the upcoming general election, they will experience the long-term impact of the incoming government, and therefore should have their say in who they want in charge. Clearly, the timing of the upcoming general election is not the sole issue facing students, the government’s laws are a true problem.


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