Many students are unaware that they could hugely impact the outcome of the General Election.
The halls are eerily empty as we set up the voter registration table in front of the Kingston College canteen. “Don’t get frozen out” flyers (from ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s) decorate the wall while ice cream is on display in an attempt to entice young people into approaching.
Waves of students finally appear as morning examinations end, but the majority barely give us a glance as Jo Hiley, the HOPE not hate organiser for Kingston, reminds the stressed-looking youth they should register to vote. One student rushes past apologetically and calls out over his shoulder: “I have exams; I don’t have time to care.”
“It really depends on how stressed the students are about their exams,” explains Saarah Pandor, member of the enrichment team at Kingston College. The group has also pushed hard to get students on the electoral roll, with over 80 young people registering during a three week campaign. “The elections couldn’t have come at a worse moment for them,” she adds.
HOPE not hate has been campaigning to encourage groups at risk of under-representation in the General Election on June 8 to register and vote. Kingston, with its high number of students, many from ethnic minorities, is an important focus.
“We’re running a high-visibility, high-impact voter registration campaign because students are often not aware how and where they need to register to vote,” says Elisabeth Pop, who heads voter registration efforts at HOPE not hate. She warns that a high proportion of voters who are students, renters and those from black and ethnic minorities are unregistered and thus their voices are under-represented at Parliament.
Many of the 7,000 students attending Kingston College come from neighbouring areas such as Croydon, Lambeth and Sutton. Since the changes in electoral registration in 2014, a large proportion of students have fallen off the electoral roll and HOPE note hate’s research reveals they are at great risk of not being registered to vote (or not voting, even if they are).
The changes to voter registration included a shift from one person, usually a parent, registering the entire household, to every person needing to register individually. Universities could no longer automatically register students, although some have started to add the link to the government’s VR website on the university intranet, added it to the enrolment process or are trying to run VR drives at freshers fairs.
The changes have impacted on a sharp decline in the number of 16- and 17-year-olds registering to vote once they turn 18. Students are also often renters, which is another high-risk group, as they must register again once they have moved – a fact that often catches them unaware.
Some of the young people who approach HOPE not hate in Kingston seem unsure whether they have registered or what is the power of their vote. “I’m only one person, it’s not that what’s happening doesn’t bother me, but what can I change?” a student shrugs as they fill in the form.
Many appear unaware that a strong representation of students could change the outcome of the General Election. During the referendum, only 43% of 18-to 24-year-olds voted compared to over 70% of over-45s
As the event picks up and news spreads of the VR drive, more students approach the registration stand ready to register and claim their ice cream, which was donated by Ben & Jerry’s to encourage democratic engagement. Many of them are under 18 and know they will not be able to vote in this election.
“I registered because I don’t want to be someone else that complains a lot and doesn’t do anything,” one student says. Tuition fees and the NHS are two recurring issues mentioned when asked why they were engaged in the elections.
But voter registration is not the only challenge HOPE not hate is aiming to tackle. “We want students to vote, but it’s also about longer term engagement and talking to them over ice cream can help,” says Hiley. “Voter registration is only part of our long term strategy to empower people and develop local leaders.”
HOPE not hate, aided by copious amounts of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, is continuing to engage with students across the UK to get them registered before the deadline on 22 May.