Students are now a force in British politics, and a growing force at that

Since the Labour leadership contests, students have been building their political influence, says Tom Cutterham 

June 9, 2017
Labour placard

Labour’s stunning success in last week's election – outstripping even the most optimistic predictions to gain more than 30 seats and overthrow the Conservative majority – belongs first and foremost to Jeremy Corbyn himself. But it is young voters, more than any other demographic group, who helped him achieve it.

According to some analysts, 66 per cent of under 25s turned out to vote this year, compared with 43 per cent in 2015, and they voted overwhelmingly for Corbyn's Labour party. Inasmuch as pollsters and pundits missed the mark in their predictions, part of the problem was their expectation that young people simply wouldn’t show up. They were wrong, and British politics now looks very different.

Young people’s pivotal role gives the lie to any suggestion that Labour might have performed just as well, or even better, under another leader. Ever since the summer of 2015, it was young activists who backed Corbyn’s leadership bid – and since then, they’ve helped him hold on against bitter attacks from the party’s older right wing. They supported him because his vision of politics offered a clear break from the stale and hopeless continuity of candidates such as Yvette Cooper, and a compassionate alternative to Liz Kendall’s ruthless Macronism avant la lettre.

The simple truth is that only Corbyn offered a politics worth getting out of bed for.

Some see Corbyn’s pledge to scrap tuition fees – a pledge he’d made from the start of his leadership campaign – as a straightforward bribe to young voters, one that they accepted without considering the consequences. But as scholars such as Stefan Collini point out, the policy is deeply rooted in an understanding of education as a universal public good. Tuition fees, and the markets they are designed to create, have begun to transform higher education; students are better placed than anyone else to experience that transformation, and reject it.

Voting for free education isn’t selfish. It’s fundamentally public-spirited, just like many of Corbyn’s other policies.

More importantly, we should recognise that Corbyn’s commitment to free education is part of a dynamic created and led by students themselves. Since the first protests against top-up fees, and especially since Nick Clegg’s betrayal in 2010, students have built a movement for free education that resists the corporatisation of our universities at every turn. Through organisations such as the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, they have worked to make sure fees aren’t simply normalised over time. Without those efforts, free education policies would have much less traction with today’s 18-24 year olds.

Opposition to fees and cuts in higher education is only one part of the picture, however. Embodied in the leadership of the National Union of Students’ (NUS) president, Malia Bouattia, the student movement’s turn against austerity encompasses a global vision. It sees students as integral parts of a larger society, not just as individualised consumers.

Under Bouattia’s leadership, support for students has gone hand in hand with backing lecturers’ and cleaners’ strikes, promoting the politics of liberation, and resisting racist and oppressive policies such as Prevent. Her recently elected successor, Shakira Martin, is equally committed to free education. She thinks Corbyn isn’t radical enough.

The NUS, and individual student unions, have been highly active in the drive to get students to register to vote. Already in practice after the EU referendum, they went into overdrive when the snap election was called. According to the Daily Telegraph, more than a million young people registered to vote following Theresa May’s announcement of the election. That this figure eclipses the equivalent for the 2015 election reflects both Jeremy Corbyn’s unique appeal and the increased activism and engagement of the student movement under Bouattia.

In other words, Corbyn motivates young voters, but they have also already been motivating themselves.

Not all young voters are students, of course. But, to judge from last night’s results, it is in university towns that the youth effect has had the most impact. In constituencies such as Leamington and Warwickshire, far down the list of Labour target seats, the large student population may well have been critical in ousting the Conservative incumbent on a 7.6 per cent swing. Conservatives also lost seats in Bristol, Oxford, and incredibly in Canterbury, while Labour improved on its slim majority in Cambridge. And in Sheffield Hallam, the symbolic ground zero of student electoral politics, Nick Clegg was humiliated by Labour’s Jared O’Mara.

All this is significant for more than just last night’s election. After more than a decade of defeat and impotence at Westminster, with the Iraq War and tuition fees forming a double cloud over engagement at the ballot box, students finally had a chance to feel their power in the Labour leadership contests. With this election, that feeling has been confirmed.

Students, and young people more broadly, are now clearly a significant force in British politics. There is no reason to think that effect will dissipate before the next vote. If anything, it’s likely to strengthen, as the message hits home that votes actually can make a difference. Politicians of all parties will have to sit up and take heed. It could be the start of something big.

Tom Cutterham is a lecturer in US history at the University of Birmingham.

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Print headline: A force awakened

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