Student engagement in politics

Home Affairs
Sunday, August 7, 2016
Luke Wilson


In an era of anti-politics, politicians agonise over voter turnout more than ever, especially among students and young people.

Gone are the days when young people would simply vote based on the party their parents supported or by tribal geographical allegiance. In fact, it is a struggle to get young people to vote at all, let alone vote a particular way: turnout among 18-24 year-olds in the 2015 general election was a disappointing 43% (Ipsos MORI), down slightly on the 2010 turnout. These turnout figures are unsustainable if our current political system is to survive, so more must be done to inspire a new generation of voters.

One might assume that with record numbers of young people going to university that political engagement is much higher among the student population, but even here, traditional political parties are struggling to have an influence. Although a YouthSight study suggests that the student turnout in 2015 was 69%, significantly higher than the turnout for 18-24 year-olds as a whole, it was lower than expected and still shows that almost a third of students didn’t vote.

This is perhaps not surprising, given the lack of a significant presence by student political groups. For example, at the University of Bristol, my university, the Conservative Association numbers at around 300 this year, with the core group of students likely below 100. Bristol Labour Students has a similar number of members, albeit with a slightly larger active contingent. Put this into context in a student population of over 22,000 and these numbers look less than impressive.

The Conservative Party must do more to prove that it is relevant to students and young people who, perhaps unsurprisingly after the expenses scandal and the Lib Dem u-turn on tuition fees, are intrinsically suspicious of politicians.

Students may be disinterested in party politics as a whole, but it would be wrong to assume that they are apathetic to political causes, with student-led movements such as ‘Reclaim the Night’ and demonstrations over tuition fees attracting lots enthusiasm and support. If only the Conservative Party could harness some of this enthusiasm and help student associations champion causes that really matter to students, such as degree satisfaction and excessive fees charged by landlords. Also strengthening the ties between local Conservative and student associations, giving them a voice in the running of the local party, would demonstrate the importance of participation and encourage new members.

Political parties have a responsibility to demonstrate to students and young people that they are relevant to them, and there is much that the Conservatives can do centrally to support student groups and benefit from the energy that students can bring.

If the Conservative Party is to ensure its survival and dominance at the top of British politics, it must do more to connect with a new generation of voters, so supporting students and listening to their concerns is one way to start.

Luke Wilson is a student at the University of Bristol and a contributor at the Bow Group