On 3rd May, we will head to the polls to vote in local elections across the country. This is the first England-wide test of electoral opinion since last year’s General Election. Over 150 different local councils have seats up for grabs in a mixture of metropolitan, unitary and district councils.
Local elections provide a chance for councillors to make changes about issues they truly care about. Bin collections are expected to be one of the top priorities for millions of voters around the country, as well as a focus on council taxes, plus rises and cuts to local services. Despite a focus on more local issues, the elections also send a message to the government by showing them the general political climate of the country.
In 2014, (the last time most of these seats were contested), Labour did well, gaining control of six councils and adding over 300 councillors to their ranks. Meanwhile, the Conservatives lost 236 seats and the control of 11 councils. As a result, Labour will have more seats to defend this time around.
In Oxford City Council, 24 of the 48 seats will be up for grabs. Each of Oxford’s 24 wards will elect one councillor, with the other seat in each ward due for election in May 2020. When the 24 seats up for election were contested in the 2014 local council election, 17 seats were won by the Labour Party; 4 by the Liberal Democrats; and 3 by the Green Party. The 2016 election also saw 18 seats won for Labour, who now hold 34 of the council seats.
The Labour and Conservative Parties have nominated candidates for all 24 seats in the Oxford City Council, while the Greens are contesting 23 and the Liberal Democrats 21. The New Statesman commentator, Stephen Bush, suggested that a successful result for Labour in Oxford would be to win the 4 Green Party seats in the council. The current Leader of the Council, Susan Brown (Labour), will stand for re-election in Churchill ward.
Students make up a large part of the electorate in Oxford and so I aimed to understand their opinions on the upcoming elections. With over 23 000 students living at the university in term time (plus another 19 000 at Oxford Brookes), the student vote has the potential to make a significant difference. I investigated over 50 Oxford University students in order to find out their levels of engagement with the local elections.
For every ten years older a voter is, their chance of voting for the Conservative Party increases by around nine points
Young people are notorious for their apathy when it comes to elections: less than 60 percent of young people voted in the 2017 general election, and the number of 18 to 24 year-olds voting in local elections has dropped below 20 percent in recent years. Statistics have shown that youth turnout in elections is much higher when the stakes are higher, and so local council elections see a significant decrease in the number of youth votes because young people often consider the issues to be less important. However, my investigation showed that Oxford University students defy the norm: 80 percent of students are planning to vote in the election.
This is an unusually high number, but it is likely that it will decrease on the day. Many voters who express an interest often cannot be bothered to leave their houses, especially when they feel as though their vote will not make a difference. My investigation found that a number of students who were planning to vote may not do so on the day, depending on their work timetable and whether they could be bothered or not. One student summed this up by saying that “I want to vote but I probably won’t because I don’t have the time”. This highlighted the broad array of student opinions concerning the elections: although most held the belief that it was important to exercise their democratic right, others did not see the point in voting for issues that they believed hardly concerned them. One student even argued that it was unfair of them to vote in Oxford when they would be leaving the university at the end of term.
However, a student who has a permanent home address and a different university address can vote in both areas if they are registered to vote in both places. Only 70 percent of students knew that this was a possibility, but despite this figure most students noted that they would rather only vote in one area as voting at home and at university was seen to be “too much effort”.
This indicates the general tone of apathy that I found amongst the student body. Just under 50 percent of students did not know the name of the ward they were voting in and 70 percent did not know the names of their local candidates. When asked what ward they were voting in, a number of students answered that they did not understand the question: “sorry I don’t know what this is” and “what is a ward?” were both responses that I received.
Clearly most students have not taken the time to look into the local council elections, regardless of the fact that they are planning to vote in them. “I didn’t bother looking at who was running because I couldn’t imagine not voting for Labour,” one response read, whereas another noted that “there’s no point voting tactically where I’m from because the same party always wins anyway”. As a result most students plan to vote for their favourite party, regardless of who the councillor is and what they are promising to change. “I just vote for whichever one lives closer to me because they know my area the best,” another stated.
Despite this lack of information, only 17 percent of students have not decided which party they are planning to vote for. When over 70 percent of students do not know the names of their local candidates, this highlights that the party as a whole truly is the deciding factor for most students. Statistics show that for every ten years older a voter is, their chance of voting for the Conservative Party increases by around nine points, making Labour much more popular with the younger generations. This was seen in the 2017 general election when over 60 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s party. My investigation showed that 55 percent of Oxford students were planning to vote for Labour, with the Liberal Democrats second at 20 percent. The Conservative share of the vote was less than 5 percent.
“I want to vote but I probably won’t because I don’t have the time”
It appears that most students are partisan as only 22 percent were considering splitting their vote between two parties. Reasons for choosing to split were generally tactical and based on whether their ward was a swing seat or not. Students whose ward was balanced on a small margin felt more of a need to split their vote, arguing that splitting allowed them to vote tactically, therefore making more of a difference where it mattered.
The absence of student interest that I found in my investigation is disheartening as young people have proven to be important voters in recent elections. Speaking to students revealed that their apathy stemmed from a lack of information about the elections. When a general election looms, we are often inundated by images of campaigning politicians; overplayed soundbites; and headlines concerning party policies. Local elections, however, receive much less national coverage as a result of the more localised policy issues. As a result, young people feel as though they are not as well informed about the issues and concerns being addressed.
This indicates that one way of increasing student involvement with elections is to provide more information to them. I found that students were willing to read leaflets that were sent to them, but would be much less likely to seek the information online instead. “I wouldn’t think to find out about who was running,” a student responded. As a result, some college JCRs have been planning to motivate the student body to vote by providing them with information about the upcoming elections. A number of colleges have pinned up important information outside lodges and in JCRs in order to educate the students about when the elections are; which wards they are in; and who their local candidates are. Providing the students with this information is an effective way of gaining a higher engagement with the elections. One student that I spoke to admitted that she wouldn’t know her local ward otherwise. Husting events for local candidates have been organised around the city and students have been motivating their peers to register to vote through Facebook pages.
Young people make up a significant portion of the voters in this country and their votes are essential in both local and national elections. It takes mere minutes to find out information regarding the local council elections and with student apathy so high, spreading information about candidates; wards; and even motivating others to vote on the day could make a huge difference.