“Well, I don’t know why it is. But I think it’s unfortunate,” said Business Secretary Vince Cable when asked by John Humphries why students wouldn’t bother to vote. This followed an item on the Today Programme on student engagement with politics and likely voting preferences in the General Election.
The result? That a significant number of students questioned won’t even bother. Some were even unsure if they were registered to vote.
Now, you can question the extent to which a dozen or so interview with students in one part of the country – as part of a two or three minute radio feature – is representative of students as a whole. Or indeed young people. But instinctively it feels it should be pretty representative, and there have been numerous other stories in the media that bear out such a conclusion.
So why should voters from the age of 18 to probably their mid-thirties be so disenchanted with the political and electoral systems? Is it simply an abrogation of their responsibilities? Or do they genuinely feel as though there’s nothing in it for them and are consequently happy to go along with the non-voting suggestions (however misguided) of the likes of Russell Brand?
On the face of it, it’s the latter. Tuition fees have risen in the last five years. Housing and rental prices, particularly in London, continue to increase exponentially – putting swathes of property out of the reach of many trying to get onto the housing ladder. There continue to be significant barriers to young people finding in employment and high numbers of NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training).
In short, younger votes can credibly make the argument that things are tough for them and they see nothing within political parties’ policies to suggest that will change.
Now, contrast this with older voters. The Tories have committed to protecting the benefits of the elderly and have shied away from means testing. Meanwhile, George Osborne has increased the amount of pensioner bonds available to the over-65s. And the other main parties have made their own overtures to the so-called ‘grey vote’, reinforcing a sense within younger generations that there’s little if anything for them.
The reason is that, with an ageing UK population, it is the grey vote that will help determine the outcome of this election and those for the foreseeable future. But policies to protect benefits for older voters smack of cynical political short-termism. And ultimately democracy will be weaker for it as today’s disillusioned younger voters become the next generation of the grey vote.
It’s a cycle that should be broken, although there’s little sign of it on the horizon. And until more is done for younger generations – or at least political parties articulate more clearly what they are doing – the likes of the Today Programme will continue to find legions of students unlikely to vote.
That, Mr Cable, is why students aren’t voting.