Politicians beware: students are mobilising
ATOTAL of 6659 people voted in the Edinburgh University Students’ Association elections last month. It was the biggest student poll in UK history. Turnout increased by 25% over the previous year. A couple of weeks later, the story at St Andrews was similar. Its turnout of 2289 is a record for the much smaller university.
This trend has been repeated across the UK. Over the past few weeks, campuses up and down the country have seen turnout records smashed. More students than ever are voting in their union elections. This is just the latest evidence of a growing trend: student apathy is over. Politicians should be watching carefully.
Part of this upturn is because of the internet. The Facebook generation has new campaign tools. YouTube broadcasts, sophisticated websites and gossip blogs have all become the norm in student elections. But if you ask any candidate, they will tell you that Facebook campaigning has never been a substitute for face-toface interaction; there’s no point in a flashy website if no-one bothers to google it; and it’s only hacks who read the blogs anyway.
The web is a very useful organising tool, but it is no good if no-one wants to be organised. So, if technology isn’t responsible for politicising students, what is? Perhaps Barack Obama is responsible? The mobilisation of young voters in the United States propelled the new President to power. This year has certainly seen substantial interest in politics. But can the immense charisma of one man really be enough to inspire a generation? His “yes we can” speech may still bring a tear to my eye, but Mr Obama was just tapping into a vibe, and it is one that is alive and kicking this side of the pond. Eighteen-year-olds today are more political than any for a generation.
The war on terror has mobilised some new activists. Climate change has inspired many more to join a new generation of campaigners, and the bombing of Gaza led to the first co-ordinated wave of university occupations in the UK for 30 years.
Given the sudden increase in turnout this year, though, the credit crunch clearly has a massive role to play. People are less likely to vote when they are rich and happy. Today’s students aren’t rich. The collapse of the graduate job market means we are not happy either. Edinburgh students this year will graduate with up to £30,000 of debt, and few prospects of a decent job. The global system established by our parents has collapsed, and we know that we will have to clean up the mess.
Whatever the cause of increased politicisation, politicians should take note. Psephologists have been telling us for a decade that the “grey vote” is the key to winning elections, and governments have been listening. It’s great that pensioners get free bus travel, but students are just as poor. My 20-year-old brother definitely needs a pass more than my 63-yearold father.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the UK government has declared war on people below the age of 25. Asbos, dispersal orders and “the respect agenda” demonstrate a government seeking to be seen to be “tough on young people, tough on the causes of young people”.
Top-up fees in England, pitiful levels of student support in Scotland and a willingness to allow students to graduate with up to £30,000 of debt both sides of the border show governments comfortable with de-prioritising students who, as I’ve been reminded by countless MSPs, don’t vote.
But that tide seems to be turning. There is no reason to believe massive increases of voting in student elections won’t be replicated when Gordon Brown decides to go to the country. This would be a seismic demographic shift in a large number of constituencies. These politicians had better wake up. Generation credit crunch is stirring, and it’s preparing to bite back.