Emily Lawson-Todd with permission for Varsity

The student vote has become an oxymoron in current politics. Keir Starmer’s New New Labour must persuade an overeducated and underemployed generation that Labour is more than just ‘not the Tories’. With their main opposition caught (literally) pants-down so many times since their election, Labour need to take advantage of their lead in the polls and start actively standing up for students, a disillusioned, low-turnout demographic alienated by the Conservatives’ ‘war on woke’. Starmer’s reliance on votes from Labour’s newfound middle-class supporters leaves him vulnerable. He must now reach for the support of a group which could be mobilised well, if given the incentive.

Students have long complained that public policy has to reflect our needs and opinions, rather than the views of age 65+ Daily Mail readers. But the increasing Tory obstacles to student voting have pushed us out of political relevance. Short of reducing student loan debts, here’s how Keir can capitalise on Tory slip-ups, and give students the incentive we need to vote Labour - or even at all.

Firstly, Labour must commit to democratic reform to make students a bigger voting group. Instead of voicing their frustrations with students for not voting, Labour must recognise and reverse the Tory obstacle course in place which actually stops most of us from voting. From barring colleges and universities from registering their students, to ageist clampdowns on voter ID and Cameron’s policy preventing families from registering their whole household, it is not apathy but Tory actions that cause the underrepresentation of the student vote.

“The right-wing portray us as lazy, disengaged and naïve. So far, Labour are looking on”

Suppressing the vote of what should be the most politically engaged and informed demographic - students - has taken almost twelve years of Tory rule to enact. Worse, the Conservative party’s long tenure in government means their deliberate voter suppression tactics have gone under the radar, forgotten in the midst of juicier scandals (think pigs, secretaries, 300 mile trips to the eye doctor). Low turnout amongst students allows the right-wing to portray us as lazy, disengaged, and naive. So far, Labour are watching on. Staying silent on undemocratic voting reforms is not the way to win over groups targeted by Tory gerrymandering.

Secondly, Labour must nationalise transport, and encourage considerate anti-car policy. It goes without question that students are the most climate-change aware demographic. Our age means we will likely face the worst consequences of global warming in our lifetimes, and our collective frustration has seen us resorting to throwing orange paint at buildings to get the government’s attention.

Starmer must renationalise public transport, including rail, bus and subway networks, in areas where councils struggle to fund it, and make a genuine commitment to reduce transport fares for students. After all, most of us don’t have cars yet. Surely in a climate crisis, prioritising public transport should be encouraged? Our current public transport systems are broken, essentially encouraging car ownership by providing no realistic alternative. My own journey from Cambridge to Newcastle takes 4 hours 30 minutes by car, but when I took the train, technical issues and strikes meant it took over 8 hours. This is not an uncommon occurrence within Britain’s failing rail networks.

But if Starmer really wants to discourage car ownership and build a greener Britain for the future, he needs to invest in zero-emission transport too. Creating new bike lanes in university cities could improve health, bank accounts and air quality too: it’s not just Oxbridge students who deserve to reap the benefits of cycling as transport.

Thirdly, Labour must commit to NHS mental health reforms - ones which will actively benefit us, too. All of us know the NHS’ mental health services need reform. University students facing the mental health crisis need to be involved in the conversation too. Students with mental health issues form a growing demographic, but remain ignored by politicians desperate to blame ‘snowflakes’ for a cheap gag.

Labour’s current set of 2024 pledges see them promise to ′treat mental health as seriously as physical health and ensure genuine parity of esteem’. But how is that realistic in a system where the waiting time for a hospital bed is often over 10 hours, where waiting lists commonly go on for years, and where emergency rooms are forced to prioritise the seriously unwell or dying? The current setup, reliant on outsourcing cripplingly expensive private agency work to survive, is in no position to tackle the problem.

“Starmer could tap into an overlooked voting goldmine”

Community-led responses have seen more success, including in Cambridge. As A&E is often not an option for those with mental health, Cambridge’s Sanctuary provides a volunteer-led crisis response team. It is free to use and provides somewhere for people experiencing suicidal thoughts to go and be comforted and listened to. This is the type of genuinely effective grassroots community service that Starmer needs to start implementing or funding. It allows for a personalised and simple service for both local residents and Cambridge students indiscriminately, and releases strain from emergency services.


Mountain View

Reflections on a year in student politics

More young adults than ever have a degree-level education, a development which Blair’s New Labour can be thanked for. Now it lies with Starmer to emulate his idol, and address the issues faced by students today. In return, he could tap into an overlooked voting goldmine.

Over to you, Keir…