In 2010, most students voted Lib Dem, right? A survey of student voters by a graduate research company suggests otherwise. In fact it contains a number of surprises.
The research by “High Fliers” into student voting has definite limitations in terms of getting a complete picture. They polled 13,000 students, but only at the thirty poshest universities, and only final year students. How exactly these two things, particularly the second one, would affect the results is not obvious. These universities are, however, where most left-wing student activism and organised discussion takes place.
In 1997, 46 per cent of final year students at these universities said they planned to vote Labour, 29 per cent Tory and 16 per cent Lib Dem (in the election, Labour got 43 per cent of all votes to 31 for the Tories and 17 for the Lib Dems, but in general pre-election polling put it higher). In 2010, 37 per cent said they'd vote Tory, 26 per cent Labour – and the Lib Dems were third with 23 per cent (actual national result 36, 29, 23).
This year's polling, done in March, has Labour and the Tories neck and neck on 31 per cent (Labour very marginally ahead). The big change is that the Lib Dems have collapsed to 6 per cent (53 per cent say they wouldn't vote Lib Dem because of its tuition fees U-turn), while the Greens are up from 6 per cent in 2010 to 25 per cent now. In other words, a majority of these students plan to vote Labour or Green. UKIP is on 1 per cent – unsurprisingly, since everything suggests that less years and more education means less likely to vote for Farage's party. (Aston University, which is tied between the Tories and Labour, gives UKIP by far its highest vote, 5 per cent.)
Before you think these students are really left-wing, however, check out the most striking fact from the polling's attitudes section: 52 per cent think the government's main priority should be to reduce the deficit. On the other hand, 51 per cent say Labour is the best party to run the NHS and other public services: but 50 per cent say prospects for young people won't improve under Labour.
Some of the data is what you'd expect. 81 per cent of the Labour voters went to a state school or college; 64 per cent of Lib Dem voters; but only 48 per cent of Tory voters. Equally unsurprisingly, Tory voters were the most likely to want a job in areas such as management consultancy, investment banking, marketing, accountancy or finance; more of them expected to start and end up better off. Labour votes are more likely to be looking at teaching, the media or the voluntary sector. Interestingly 77 per cent of Green voters went to a state school or college; 60 per cent of UKIP voters; and 89 per cent of SNP voters.
Which universities are going to vote how is not necessarily what you'd expect. Imperial and Durham have the Tories ahead by clear margins; so does St Andrews, though by less than you might have imagined. Birmingham also has the Tories ahead. In addition to Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester and Lancaster, Labour is clearly ahead at Kings, UCL, Warwick and Oxford (Cambridge is tied).
At Warwick 62 per cent say they'll vote Labour or Green; at Oxford and Kings 64 per cent; at UCL 65 per cent. The highest Labour/Green percentages are at Leeds (66), Sheffield (67), Lancaster (67), Manchester (70), and Liverpool (75 – giving Labour its highest percentage, 48). The Greens are in first place at Leeds (their best result, 35 per cent) and Edinburgh, just ahead of Labour, and doing very well at Manchester and UCL. In Bristol, they are only just behind the Tories, well ahead of Labour. It seems like probably the burgeoning Green vote, while smashing the Lib Dems, is also taking support from Labour in some places.
At Glasgow, the SNP are not far ahead of Labour and the Greens, with the Tories on just 6 per cent. At Strathclyde, the nationalists are clearly ahead; the Tories are doing a bit better, so are Labour and and the Greens a lot worse. At Edinburgh, where there are a lot more English students, the SNP are on 13 per cent.
Does the political activist scene at each university bear any relationship to the results (in either direction, as cause or effect)? In some cases things look visible through the data. It's doesn't seem surprising that Edinburgh, with its noticeable culture of “ethical” lifestylism and activism, is something of a Green stronghold. Oxford has a very well-established and, for instance in terms of the student union, strong Labour Club compared to Cambridge. Could strong Labour votes at Warwick, Kings and UCL be connected to student struggles there? Or are these results to do with other things? More research – for instance into different universities' intakes – would be needed to even think about it properly. A lot is just unknowable.
Since 2010 there have been quite a lot more student struggles than in the six or seven years before. But even at its high points, even during the national movement of winter 2010-11, student activism has involved a minority – and more usually a small minority. These kind of figures provide useful background information that can reinforce realism in student activism and organisation, but no more.
Socialist students need to raise the profile of socialist ideas on campuses, to expand their forces as the necessary condition for producing big shifts in student opinion. One thing the High Fliers polling shows is that there are plenty of left-leaning students out there, some of whom will be receptive to more radical ideas – but we have to reach them.