While labour is still the top party for students, their popularity has fallen a long way since their dominant position from mid-2017 to early 2018. Jeremy Corbyn is still the most popular of the three main party leaders - but only by a hair's breadth. And his popularity has been waning for some time.
The Lib Dem brand has been largely detoxified since the damage they experienced after the 2010 student fees debacle. This is a very recent change. However, levels of support are still nowhere near those enjoyed by the Lib Dems from 2004 to 2010; they still have much work to do in building bridges with students.
YouthSight has been tracking the Student Vote since 2004. Our latest wave of research (Wave 142) was conducted 3rd – 7th October 2019. Prior to this latest wave, the previous wave was conducted in mid-August 2019 for the Times Higher Education.
Students and a winter election
There has been considerable discussion in the press (e.g. the Guardian, New Statesman and Independent) about a possible winter election in 2019, with dates in early- to mid-December being muted. One criticism of the 12th December date proposed by the Prime Minister, relates to whether or not students will be registered in time, and whether or not they will vote in their ‘home’ or their university constituency (since students break up for Christmas around this time). Previous research by YouthSight with Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) found that in the June 2017 election (which occurred at the start of the university Summer holidays), two thirds of students intended to vote in their home constituency rather than their university constituency. Thanks to our first past the post system which favours geographically concentrated votes, such as those around universities, the presumption is that if students vote in their home constituencies the Conservatives will benefit, whereas if they vote in their university constituency, Labour will benefit most. Embedded within this assumption is the belief that students tend to vote Labour and that their home constituency is more likely to be a solid Conservative seat where one extra Labour vote will make little difference. The following findings show that this voting pattern was (probably) more relevant in the 2017 election, as the last year and a half has shown student support melting away.
This latest October wave of results shows a fall in anticipated turnout from the previous wave in August 2019, from the exceptionally high level of 80%, to the current 71% of participants who we believe will be highly likely to cast a vote. This level is in line with recent waves which, since April 2015, have nearly all been well above the long-term average of 66% anticipated turnout. The implication is that this latest generation of students are far more politically motivated than previous cohorts, presumably due to Brexit and the greater general post-Brexit political tumult.
Turnout among female students is likely to be higher than among male students (73% to 68%) and again higher at Russell Group universities than at ‘post-1992’ universities (83% to 64%). Finally, it is likely to be higher among third year (and older) students than among first year students (79% to 66%).
Our latest wave of polling saw Labour’s share of the student vote rise from 38% in August to 43% in October. The Lib Dems came second among students, also enjoying a rising share, from 19% in August to 22% in October. Support for the Green Party fell back from 18% to 14% while the Conservatives support came in fourth place among students with their share still declining from 12% in August to 11% in October.
The Labour vote is firmer among women than men (48% to 37%) and among students studying at ‘post-1992’ universities than among Russell Group university students (46% to 38%).
Although Labour’s share of the vote has somewhat recovered from the low of 38% in August, it is still at a very low ebb compared to early 2018 when they were polling up to 70% of the student vote. The Lib Dem share of the vote was very marginally higher two waves ago, in June 2019, at 23%, but it is still at a very high level relative to their popularity over the last nine years. It was last seen above the 22% /23% level before the 2010 election. It certainly looks like they are on course to detoxify their brand after the intense damage done by the student fees debacle, often in recent years viewed as a student ‘betrayal’. However, the Lib Dems are a long way from their pre-2010 norm when they regularly polled around 30% support from students.
Despite the popular image of students being seen as a group who sit permanently to the extreme left of politics, the Conservative Party were the most popular party among students from around September 2007 to around February 2010. And for most of the period since late 2010 the Conservatives have been considerably more popular among students than the Lib Dems. However, as of May 2019 the Conservatives have become the least popular of the main parties, only just managing to make it into double figures in the vote share stakes and coming fourth, after the Green Party.
Jeremy Corbyn’s net favourability score has declined almost continuously since February 2018 when it was at its high of +35%. The latest wave has his score at +1%. Over the same period the Lib Dem score has risen from -12% (under Vince Cable) to the current score of -6% for Jo Swinson. Boris Johnson’s score of -58% is an all time low for any party leader in terms of leader favourability. The current Prime Minister has the lowest favourability among Russell Group students (-66%) while Jo Swinson has the highest rating among this group.
YouthSight has been tracking the student vote in the UK since 2004. In that time, we have run 142 waves of polling. Each wave of fieldwork is run using YouthSight’s Student Omnibus survey. The latest wave (142) was conducted 3rd-7th October 2019. The sample for the Student Omnibus is based on a representative sample of full-time undergraduate students at UK universities. Quotas are set for course year (1,2,3+), gender and university type (Russell Group, pre-1992 universities, post-1992 universities and specialist institutions). Targets for the quotas are acquired using the latest data supplied by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Weights are also occasionally used to ensure the sample is fully representative. A sample size of approximately 1000 students is used in each wave. All respondents taking part in the voting questions are eligible to vote in UK elections. For the Brexit questions, eligibility status is made clear in the tables. All participants are members of YouthSight’s 150,000-strong online research panel. All completers receive around £1 to £2 in shopping voucher credits.
When reporting likely turnout, we consider only those we regard as having a high likelihood to vote. We base this on the question, “How likely would you be to vote in an immediate General Election?”, We measure anticipated turnout by looking at those who rate their likelihood to vote in an immediate General Election at 8, 9 or 10 on a 1 to 10 scale where 1 is “absolutely certain not to vote” and 10 is “absolutely certain to vote”.
Party preference question
When looking at party preference, we only regard the views of those we consider to be highly likely to vote (i.e. rate themselves an 8, 9 or 10 on the Turnout question). Furthermore, we remove the ‘don’t know’ answers from the base, so when we talk about the share of the student vote, we automatically mean ‘among those both express a preference and are likely to vote’. The voting preference question we have asked consistently, for the past fifteen years is, “How would you vote if there were a General Election tomorrow?” We give pre-coded choices for all the major parties of the day: currently that is: Labour, Lib Dem, Conservative, SNP/Plaid Cymru, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Green Party, UKIP, BNP, Sinn Fein, DUP, SDLP, Ulster Unionist Party, Brexit Party and Change UK (The Independent Group) and "Another party".
Leader favourability questions
We measure leader favourability by asking participants to rate how they “feel” about each of the party leaders (Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem only) on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 means “strongly dislike” and 10 means “strongly like”. We calculate the favourability score by taking the percentage who score 7, 8, 9 or 10 and subtracting from that the percentage scoring 0, 1, 2 or 3. We disregard the views of those who offer scores 4 to 6 simply we want to try and establish the net views of those with a strongly positive or negative perspective.
YouthSight was established in 2004. We are an independent specialist market research agency, focused on 16-30s. Our culturally minded and commercially driven researchers steer brands and universities to fully maximise their relationship with Gen Z and Millennials. Our panel & data services division provides agencies with access to our 150,000-strong panel of 16-30s and comprehensive research data services.
We would like to thank the Higher Education Policy Institute, Open Britain and Times Higher Education for their contributions in developing our questions, especially our Brexit questions, over the last few years.