The General Election is now just a few days away and according to both the polls and the pundits the outcome is far from certain. What is certain, however, is that more than 1,000 candidates have signed the National Union of Students’ pledge committing to vote against higher tuition fees and push for a fairer alternative during the next Parliament.
Students are often thought to be disinterested or disenfranchised from mainstream politics; in recent times, students have indeed often stayed at home on polling day. Not this year. Current polling suggests 2010 could see a significant surge in the numbers of students that cast their vote.
A poll earlier this week from Endsleigh Insurance/NUS showed that as many as 75 per cent of university students are planning to vote. The top-up fee generation are preparing to strike back.
NUS has been working closely with students’ unions across the UK to deliver the biggest ‘get out the vote’ campaign in our history, and we are confident that this will result in the highest proportion of 18-25-years-olds voting in over a generation. The recent increase in the number of students and young people getting onto the electoral register is a good indicator of the impact they are about to have.
Given, however, the silence from both Labour and Conservatives on fees (hiding behind the conveniently timed ‘Browne Review’ in both their manifestos) and the watering down of the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to abolishing fees (citing a six-year phase-out plan with no details on maintaining or increasing student numbers), students rightly feel let down that student fees hasn’t been a bigger issue in the run up to May 6th.
An absence of detail in each of the major parties’ manifestos saw NUS take to asking every single candidate right across the UK whether they would personally be committed to voting against fees during the next Parliament irrespective of their party’s policy. The response has been overwhelming with more than 1,000 candidates signing up.
The Liberal Democrats lead the way with more than 400 signatures including leader Nick Clegg and Treasury spokesman Vince Cable. For the Labour Party, there were more than 200 signatories including former NUS President and current immigration minister Phil Woolas. He is also joined by a number of former ministers, other MPs that had voted for higher fees back in 2004 and notable backbenchers including Jon Cruddas, Tony McNulty, Roberta Blackman-Woods, Gisela Stewart, Frank Dobson, Karen Buck, Kate Hoey, Alan Whitehead, and Steve McCabe.
There have also been 200 sign-ups from the Green Party – including leader Caroline Lucas – and from UKIP and the Respect Party leader Salma Yaqoub. Yet despite signatories in their hundreds from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, a pitiful 13 Conservative candidates have signed the pledge. Without any other message on fees, this is surely a clear indication as to what the Tories might attempt to do on fees.
More telling, however, is that on further analysis the vast majority of signatories have been concentrated in seats with large student numbers, showing that politicians need to start taking us more seriously. With the outcome of this election too close to call, the student vote could make all the difference.
I’ll close with this: given that more than 500 Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates have signed up already, fees could well be a deal-breaker in the event of any deal in a hung Parliament. Mr Brown and Mr Clegg, I hope you can repay the top-up fee generation as they prepare to go to the ballot box.
• A full list of signatories can be downloaded here.