The Liberal Democrats are in a quandary – of their own making. Before the election the party’s 57 MPs signed up to a National Union of Students-organised pledge to vote against a rise in university tuition fees. The Lib Dem manifesto said they wanted to scrap fees altogether.
Now the Coalition is proposing an increase from £3,290 to a maximum of £9,000 a year – and there will be a vote next week. It’s not yet clear what the Lib Dems will do. The Coalition agreement said they could abstain, and a mass abstention could create the impression of unity and take the sting out the thorny issue. The NUS is furious, saying it will campaign against any MP who breaks the pledge.
So how vital is the student vote to the Lib Dems?
Previous Lib Dem opposition to fees is credited with winning the party student votes and overturning Labour majorities (Labour introduced fees in the first place).
In new analysis seen by FactCheck, the British Election Study has found that more students voted for the Lib Dems in May than for any other party.
Support for the Lib Dems was 40.5 per cent, while 33.5 per cent backed Labour and 20 per cent the Conservatives.
BES co-director Professor Paul Whiteley told FactCheck: “It’s fair to say that the Liberal Democrats were dependent upon votes from university students last time to a significant extent, and what is more, university students chose them over the other parties.”
Based on the BES survey, students make up 3.2 per cent of the total Lib Dem vote across the entire country. But students are concentrated in specific university towns and cities.
According to YouGov, the eight Lib Dem seats with the biggest student populations are: Sheffield Hallam (leader Nick Clegg’s constituency), Leeds North West, Cardiff Central, Cambridge, Bristol West, Manchester Withington, Norwich South and Colchester.
Labour lost four of these seats to the Lib Dems at the 2005 election. This has been attributed to student disenchantment over tuition fees and the Iraq war. In May, the Lib Dems also captured Norwich South from Labour, ousting former Home Secretary Charles Clarke. His defeat has also been blamed on the student vote.
The NUS claims 15 MPs have pledged to vote against the rise – and that includes members representing five of those eight seats with the biggest student population.
Since the election, student support for the Lib Dems has fallen dramatically to 15 per cent, YouGov has found.
Prof Whiteley again: “The loss of the student vote is a serious matter for them.”
YouGov has found that Lib Dem support has also fallen across the wider electorate – down from 23 per cent to 10 per cent since May,
So, this new research illustrates just how much vital students’ votes were for the Lib Dems in May – and how successfully the party had captured this vital group of younger voters. Put bluntly, their opposition to tuition fees meant the the Lib Dems took seats from Labour. And Labour’s resistance to the Coalition Government’s plan could mean them winning back those seats.
The Lib Dems have lost two thirds of their support from students since the election – as things stand, it looks as though they will be paying the price when voters next go to the polls. And Lib Dem MPs who do vote against the fees rise will be hoping students are prepared to back them personally, rather than punish their party.