Image Credit: Bill Nicholls
A Tory councillor has argued for electoral reform to remove the right of students to vote in their university towns. Anna Firth, who lost the Parliamentary election for Canterbury, has argued that increased student numbers has resulted in a voting block that makes up over six per cent of the electorate: a problem for Conservative candidates running in university towns where student numbers are high.
Writing for Conservative Home, Firth argued that a plan was needed both to “regain the university seats”, and to win back students who “flocked to Corbyn” in 2019. Describing the high student turnout in her constituency at 9am, she said that the queues of students in pyjamas at voting booths were “not encouraging.” Canterbury is home to the three universities, which have a combined student population of 44,000.
Firth proposed that students only be allowed to vote at their “permanent home”, not at their University address, although she admitted that a “partial solution” would be to stop students voting in university towns in a practical sense by holding elections during summer holidays or other points outside of term time.
Defending her loss last year, Firth argued that universities were also to blame for creating a generation of young Labour voters. Her article calls universities “hard left/liberal-leaning institutions” that convert students to liberal ideas during crucial “formative years.”
Student towns remained a bastion of Labour support last year, as the strong message on Brexit pushed by the Johnson campaign drove away a student population that typically prefered remain-supporting parties. YouGov has reported that just 16 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted Conservative in 2019, compared to 58 per cent of 70+ year olds.
University towns are particularly challenging for Conservative candidates to win because of the concentration of students, that would otherwise be dispersed throughout many different constituencies. York has a higher population of young people than the rest of England: 20-24 year olds make up 10 per cent of the population here, compared with the national average of 6.8 per cent.
Students seemed to prefer remain parties in both York constituencies. In York Outer, incumbent Conservative Julian Sturdy ceded around 2000 votes to the Liberal Democrats relative to the last election, and in York Central, the Conservative vote share also fell, even as the Liberal Democrats and Greens maintained their vote shares.
For the Conservatives, student engagement presents a pressing problem. The party’s manifesto priorities are not statistically attractive to the student population, and unambitious goals on the climate, an increase in tuition fees, and the continued debate over mortgage rates have driven more young people away from voting Tory in recent years.