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Blatant bribery
July/August 2017

Tim Congdon: Universities are developing a self-reinforcing slant to the Left (illustration by Michael Daley)

Conservatism does not appeal to the young. It reveres the past, established institutions and tradition, whereas the young look to the future, new ideas and change. So no surprise might be expressed that a difference in the voting patterns of young and old was evident in the 2017 general election. Of course, the secret ballot prevents an exact calculation, but enough is known from opinion polls and the geography of voting to be certain that the young voted heavily for the Labour Party.

What is astonishing is the extent of the disparity. An ICM poll on May 29 found that Labour had the support of 61 per cent of possible voters in the 18-24 age group, whereas the Conservatives’ share was only 12 per cent. Further, in contrast to the 2015 general election the young made a big effort to vote, particularly if they were in full-time education. Electoral Commission data show that more than two million people applied to register to vote in the weeks following the announcement of a snap election. The new voters must have contributed to Labour’s remarkable success in university towns, notably in Cambridge (with a swing to Labour of 15.9 per cent), Oxford East (15.1 per cent) and the four Bristol constituencies (particularly Bristol West where the swing was 30.3 per cent).

What is going on here? Much of the explanation is mercenary, crude and possibly transient. The Labour Party offered two bribes to students. First, its manifesto promised that tuition fees would be scrapped from this September. “Freshers” matriculating this autumn would have had little or no debt overhanging them once they started work three years from now, if Labour were in power. By contrast, they might have debts of more than £30,000 each under the Conservatives. Labour’s plan would add over £10 billion a year to public expenditure. On that basis, students voting against Theresa May were like turkeys voting against Christmas. Second, in an interview for New Musical Express on June 1 Jeremy Corbyn said that he was “sympathetic” to cancelling past student debts. He did not make a definite commitment, perhaps aware that the cost would be a once-for-all increase in the UK’s public debt of £30 billion. But it was a blatant bid for the bourgeois university vote in the largest sense.

Another part of the explanation is more fundamental and for conservatives deeply worrying. In electoral terms, students are more numerous than staff and so matter most. But, in terms of their long-term influence on the political climate, members of staff are far more significant. By writing the textbooks that undergraduates must absorb, and in other ways nudging opinion and attitudes, university teachers have great influence on what young people believe. Such beliefs are the ultimate drivers of political commitment.

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