When the Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders wrote that his party had 'lost a generation of young voters', he may have had his party's screeching u-turn on tuition fees in mind. So whether student disaffection with Nick Clegg's party is likely to have an electoral impact is one of the key questions of the 5th May elections.
When the Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders wrote that his party had ‘lost a generation of young voters’, he may have had his party’s screeching u-turn on tuition fees in mind. So whether student disaffection with Nick Clegg’s party is likely to have an electoral impact is one of the key questions of the 5th May elections.
An assessment of by-elections in student areas looks bleak for the party. In Cambridge Coleridge, a ward which faced a by-election shortly after the announcement of the new tuition fees vote, the election of Labour’s George Owers saw Cambridge’s last Conservative representation on the council lost and the Lib Dem vote fall by 14.6%. Likewise, on the same day, a by-election in Manchester Hulme saw the Lib Dem’s lose 14.1% of the vote.
As students prepare to return from the Easter break, one city in which the student vote has the potential to be decisive is Leeds, a city with the second-highest student population outside London.
Of particular interest will be Headingley ward, in heart of the city’s student population. The ward can be found in the Leeds North West constituency where in 2010 the Lib Dem incumbent, Greg Mulholland, saw his majority increase. At present, Headingley is represented by three Liberal Democrats, with one of its incumbents, James Monaghan facing re-election. But do the Lib Dems face a student backlash in Headingley and if so, could it prove decisive? Will Greg Mulholland’s decision to vote against the rise in tuition fees give the party in Headingley protection from a student backlash? And finally, if students are to vent their frustrations at the Lib Dems, is it necessarily Labour that is on course to become the party of students in Leeds?
Left Foot Forward posed these questions to Dr Ed Gouge from its Department for Politics, student and former Lib Dem intern Alex Smethurst, and chair of Leeds University Labour Students, Mark Sewards.
Will the Lib Dems face a student backlash? Dr Ed Gouge:
“I don’t think there is any question but that the Lib Dems will lose votes among students.”
“There has been a lot of anger among students, but mostly disappointment.”
Will students affect election outcomes? Mark Sewards:
“Turnout in a ( high-student) ward like Headingly has been as low as 20 per cent.”
“Frankly, many students either won’t bother to vote, will have a postal vote for their home seats or will simply be tied up with either essays and exams.”
Will local Lib Dem MP Greg Mullholland’s vote against tuition fees save the local party? Mark Sewards:
“Greg’s stance will make a difference. Many students, including a few inside Leeds Labour, are sympathetic to his anti-fees stance. Few students take into account the fact that he supported the budget which saw massive cuts implemented to university funding, meaning that universities will need higher tution fees to fill the gap in future (or an alternative funding system). It’s because the general student body do not recognise this that the Liberal Democrats may take less of a hit in Headingley than they do elsewhere.”
Dr Ed Gouge:
“The lesson of Iraq was that Labour MPs who voted against the war found to their dismay that it didn’t have a lot of effect in the 2005 general election so the voters don’t neccessarily look at how individual MPs.”
With Lib Dems facing discontent, is Labour on course to become the party of students in Leeds? Mark Sewards:
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“Leeds Labour membership has increased four times this year. But, if I’m being honest, the increase in support for Labour amoungst students in Leeds can be attributed to anti-government sentiments rather than pro-Labour ones. The party, with its student and youth wings, will have to build a student-friendly image if it is to become the natural home of the student vote.”