What Should Political Parties Do to Capture the Student Vote?

by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.
Image shows a student walking next to a banner protesting unemployment.The British government serves the mature in years.

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This is partly a function of necessity given that older voters are more inclined to vote, and partly a function of the requirements of high office that mean that a man or woman has made their way in the world already by the time that they are considered suitably ripe for great things. As such it is the voice of the young and particularly of the student which is quietest in British politics, useful for holding placards at a rally, helpful to add pep to a campaign drive, but not a force in the sense of influencing policy or even when it comes to holding policy to account.

Image shows a screengrab from the Liberal Youth website, showing 'Activate', its annual training weekend.
Liberal Youth, like its Labour and Conservative equivalents, is patronising and misjudged.

Witnessing politicians speak to, or rather speak at, students is an instructive lesson in their modes of thought. Take the campaign sections of the websites for the youth or student wings of the three major Westminster parties for instance. The issues which the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties focus on are soft ones all of which coalesce around the theme of social justice – Labour is campaigning for campus credit unions and in favour of special privileges for every single possible category of person other than able white heterosexual males, the Liberal Democrats are focussed on celebrating same sex marriages. The Conservative Future website is not directly comparable (it targets those below 30) and is a model of economy in its campaigning, pushing only free schools and a piece entitled “tuition fees: the facts”, which contains not facts, as one might hope, but a political statement from somebody named Ben Howlett.
There are a few key themes here which weave throughout the tapestry of political communication to the young and which are worth drawing out. The first is the belief that students are primarily interested only in issues of social justice and that they understand social justice only in the narrow sense that it is wrong to obstruct, either by law or stigma or not positively providing resources, people from doing whatever their heart desires. Evidently there is some merit in this – the old adage that nobody with a heart is a Conservative at 20 and nobody with a head is not come 40 contains more than a little truth – but successive studies (including this one in the Guardian)  have found this generation to be more traditional and harder headed, concerned at the over-ripe generosity of the state towards those it deemed worthy.
The second theme is the belief that students are mostly concerned with those things which concern them immediately and directly. The prominence of the debate on tuition fees is an example of this, as is the Labour proposal to extend the universal franchise into childhood by starting it with 16 year olds.

Image shows a baby grabbing at a mobile.
How the major UK political parties see their voters, apparently.

Finally, there is the assumption that young people are deeply stupid. None of the websites commits itself to an argument which cannot be rolled into a short, illiterate slogan. None of them taxes the reader with explanations or arguments on economic policy, for instance, except to say something along the lines that some people do not have enough money and that this is bad and in addition to being bad for them it is hurtful to us because it is also not fair. Maybe all political discourse is now conducted as if it was a Socratic dialogue between a moron and an infant; I rather suspect it is, but even so there seems to be a particularly limited level of faith when it comes to the reasoning capacity of today’s students. However low the elderly might believe the young to have fallen, it takes a politician to believe that a young person is gullible, so easily influenced, so unattached to principle, that a middle aged man may don a baseball cap or attend the Notting Hill carnival and instantly he will win the youth vote, yet for a long time this was one of the high points of Tory youth engagement. But if this isn’t enough, what is it that youth wants?

Getting it wrong

I would argue that all three dimensions of political ideas about the interests of youth – soft-heartedness, myopia, silliness – are demonstrably wrong. This creates an opportunity for politicians as well as a new challenge in respect of reorienting their existing approach. Let us first take these themes one-by-one.
The trend of the heartless young has been recognised on the Left for a while and led to much hand-wringing by the Guardian and New Statesman. I do not think this is a new development, much less an inexplicable one. When you are young you are at the peak of your physical wellness. You do not, in your salad days, unless you have already suffered greatly at the hands of the fates, perceive in the world lengthening shadows and threats, but rather opportunity, a blank slate. You have your self-belief and a thirst for work that only very few carry with them their whole lives. In short, you are not overly concerned with setting up complicated mechanisms for arbitrarily confiscating things from one part of society and giving them to another part in the name of social justice – if you want something, you’ll trust yourself to work for it, and you expect others to do the same. In short, the young approach the world from a position of strength and this automatically disinclines them towards socialism and social justice, both of which are forms of rendering the strong low.

Thinking that students are myopic is also wrong. Most realise two important things. The first is that their time at school and university will be limited and that for the majority of their lives they will be working, tax paying adults. This means that they are less likely than politicians often think to back tax intensive subsidy programmes for students or for anyone else as they will bear the burden of paying for them. When a student enters the world of work they will have fewer material assets to protect than the rest of the electorate and more of a need to get on – as such, they are likely to be to the right of the electorate as a whole. The second is that they realise that any pro-student legislation is unlikely to benefit themselves but their successors. Such is the spirit of humbug in human nature that I doubt promising to extend the franchise to 16 year olds, for instance, will do very much to sway the 18 year old vote.

Image shows the ballot for the Alternative Vote referendum.
Students are likely to be more flexible in their voting habits than older people.

Finally there is the silliness aspect. As one goes through life, voting becomes a reflex rather than a reasoned choice. A person over the age of 35 seldom reconsiders their views and almost never changes their mind on politics – floating voters are so treasured because they are so scarce a commodity. At 18, with a mind sharp from study and from learning, with a mind more open to possibilities and less of an entrenched interest in the status quo, a young person will almost certainly exercise their franchise more carefully than at 81. There is no reason to think that the young cannot be trusted to make decisions based on an intellectually rigorous discussion of the ideas of the day, and plenty to suppose that they will actually be rather better at this than their elders. In other words then the political situation is rather different to that perceived in Westminster and a strategy which will actually appeal to students, rather than to a caricature of students is something that needs to be carefully developed through reappraising what it actually is that students want.

How to get it right

I would suggest that reversing the above and moving to a position that is genuinely attractive to students means a shift in priorities and in personnel for the main parties. Firstly, the policy aspect. A great deal of the conversation around budgeting is disingenuous. Forget borrowing to invest, the £1.3 trillion which the UK government owes has been borrowed to cover consumption expenditure. In other words the voters of today have been buying themselves treats knowing full well that the bill falls to the voters of tomorrow, today’s youth. The crass irresponsibility of the UK’s debt binge, as well as the ridiculous assertion by the Conservative party and its rivals that this parliament’s doubling the national debt in five years (reducing the deficit simply means doing this at a lower compound rate) represents some sort of terrible austerity, adds together to produce a culture of financial irresponsibility and denial that is deeply concerning for the young person on whose behalf these cheques are being signed.

Image shows a UK 'elderly people' traffic warning sign.
The elderly are heavily subsidised in British society.

A coherent economic policy for the young would be one that produces a low rate of taxation, allowing them to save for their first home. To do so, it would also need to wean those in their second childhood off state support – the elderly, who have had their entire working lives to make provision for themselves, are currently the most expensive demographic across a vast range of government departments. Subsidising them skewers the opportunity structure in society and means that new workers are subsidising the inheritances of those descended from pensioners able to pay for healthcare, for instance, but unwilling. Moves in this direction, if well communicated, would compensate for a loss of older voters by lifting some of the burden from the young.
The issue of personnel is a more ephemeral one. It is a mistake for student politicians to be seen as representative of their generation – these are by definition the oddballs and the power maniacs whose sense of their own manifest destiny is so great that they believe themselves to have understood all of life’s challenges at the age of 19. They are conceited and widely disliked by their peers and they cannot be trusted to represent the views of their generation. Both politicians and their representatives at a student level would do well to have lived a little of life first – coming fresh from the playground, the bullying instinct is very strong in adolescents and they are not particularly likely to respond well to appeals from people who have worked in politics since graduating.

Image shows a crowd of people.
British people are more united than divided.

In other words, the basics of good governance should suffice to enhance a party’s appeal to youth. This should not really be a surprise; we are a more cohesive society than many think. The modern mania for dividing the population into segments is an urge particular to a Marxist system, a need to discover victims and tinker incessantly with the amounts confiscated and reallocated between groups. Maybe the most helpful thing politicians could do for their cause is to lift their eyes beyond the micro-electorate and look back at the teeming mass of the country as a whole. As the sorry mess playing out in Scotland shows us, the more you tell people they are different and need special rules to accommodate them and their way of life, the more they believe it. In a strange way the heart-breaking revelations from Rotherham also speak to the same point – we have fostered disunity and division amongst our own people to such a great extent that British citizens look often upon their fellows as no better than dirt.
The best way to attract the student vote is to look after the student interest and the student interest is nothing more than the long term future and cohesiveness of this country. The absolute failure to do this has left those now nearing the end of their schooling emerging into a nation that is laden with debt and burdensome obligation, one divided amongst itself and potentially one that might not exist after Thursday’s vote. Responsibility, unity, and humility in government accepting its limitations as well as its powers – these are the methods by which the sympathies of the country, and by extension the student vote, can really be captured.


Image credits: banner; Liberal Youth; baby; ballot; elderly people; crowd.