Mike Curtis

13 days before the general election, a Varsity poll of over 1,000 Cambridge students – the largest poll of this demographic conducted thus far in the run up to 7th May – can exclusively reveal the political leanings of the student community.

Conducted between 2nd March and 10th April, students were asked which party they would vote for if a general election were held tomorrow, with respondents able to change their answers throughout the duration of the polling period.

Among the 1,063 participants in the Varsity survey, Labour topped the poll, with 32 per cent intending to vote Labour.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Conservatives came in second place, with 24 per cent of the vote. This is likely to be the result of the fragmentation of the vote on the left of the political spectrum: the Greens came in a close third place, with 22 per cent of student votes in the poll, and the Liberal Democrats came in fourth place at 19 per cent. 

A further two per cent would vote for UKIP, and 1 per cent for other parties, including the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Northern Irish parties.

Daniel Zeichner, the Labour candidate for Cambridge, said he was very pleased that Labour’s “very strong offer to Cambridge students” was starting to resonate.

“It’s clear that many [students] feel let down by the Lib Dems,” he told Varsity. “We now have a radical and practical offer for students which will make a real difference for those about to graduate, current students, and those to follow in future,” citing a range of polices including a reduction in tuition fees to be paid for by restricting Pension Tax Relief for the wealthiest pensioners, increasing maintenance grants and ending unpaid internships.

“I also find that students care passionately about social justice, and like what they see from Labour on the living wage, and that we will scrap the unfair Bedroom Tax.”

Rory Weal, the Chair of Cambridge Universities Labour Club, agreed that students are turning to the party because they feel Labour “really is offering something distinctive and different... this election”.

Tactical voting: Tories vote at home

Further analysis, however, indicates that Cambridge students may not be as left-leaning as they initially appear.

Varsity’s survey asked respondents to indicate whether they intended to vote in Cambridge or their home constituency. For those who plan to vote in Cambridge, Labour’s share of the vote remains strong, at 33 per cent compared to the Tories’ 19.9 per cent, who slip into fourth place behind the Greens (24.5) and Lib Dems (20.2).

However, among those planning to vote at home, the position is reversed, with the Conservatives receiving a 40 per cent share to Labour’s 27 per cent.

This appears to indicate a ‘tactical voting’ trend, with student Conservatives unwilling to waste their vote in what increasingly appears to be a tight Liberal Democrat and Labour race for Cambridge.

As one third-year Conservative voter from Corpus told us: “As much as I’d like to see Cambridge turned blue, there is no way Chamali Fernando will be able to fend off both Labour and the Lib Dems to win Cambridge,” he said.

“My home constituency is more marginal for the Conservatives, and my vote will make more of a difference there.”

Chamali Fernando, however, remains optimistic, telling Varsity that “job security, apprenticeships and that Government must not spend money that it does not have while transferring current national debt liabilities to their generation” are all issues striking a chord with students she meets on the campaign trail.

She also says that students “don’t believe” Labour’s promise for a reduction in tuition fees, and that because the Liberal Democrats “disowned” students over the issue, “consequently the Conservative position makes sense”.

“We came SECOND in 2010, and we have been campaigning full-time for a victory in 2015,” she told us.

Among students planning to vote in Cambridge, however, the Conservatives languish in fourth place on 19.9 per cent, behind the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, who come in second place on 24.5 per cent.

Echoing Daniel Zeichner’s sentiment, Green candidate Rupert Read attributed his party’s success among students to a sense of social justice and “how different we are from the old parties”.

“[O]nly the Greens oppose Trident and TTIP, only we stand firm against UKIP xenophobia, only we can be trusted to be serious about dangerous climate change, and only we have policies designed to create a more equal society... Young people really care about these things!” he told Varsity.

However, he was quick to advise against voting Labour in this seat, as an absolute Labour majority would mean, in his words, electing a government that is “pro-Trident, pro-TTIP and pro-austerity, a government whose rhetoric on immigration will be sub-UKIP, a government that will utterly disappoint you”. Instead, he advocated voting for anti-austerity parties, like the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, to “hold a Labour minority Government to its better angels”.

Read also advocated tactical voting in this election, urging any Green-leaning students to vote in Cambridge.

“[U]nless your home is in Brighton Pavilion, Norwich South, or Bristol West, please vote here rather than at home... This was our third strongest seat in the 2010 general election and is one of our top target seats nationwide this time: your vote can almost certainly do more good for us here than it will at your home.”

Lib Dems victim of a Green surge

Commenting on the Green Party’s strong result in the poll, second only to Labour among students voting in Cambridge, Luke Ilott, Chair of the Young Greens, told Varsity: “This election is a tale of two generations”.

“Among older Britons, raised on two-party politics, it’s hard to understand what the Green surge is all about. But for young citizens, the Greens aren’t just a major political party; they’re the party that speaks for them.”

Varsity’s findings, however, stand in contrast to a recent Lord Ashcroft poll, where the Lib Dems gained a 55 per cent vote share among 18-24 year olds planning to vote in the Cambridge seat. Taken during the vacation, the poll only included 19 18-24 year olds, whose weighted base was greatly inflated to 93/550 to reflect the demographics of this seat. Labour came a very distant second at 18 per cent, with the Greens in third on 17 per cent.

Overall, the Liberal Democrats topped the Ashcroft poll with 40 per cent of the vote, nine per cent ahead of Labour. Given the statistical distortion of the youth vote, however, the validity of this poll lead is questionable.

Today’s Varsity survey, with its more comprehensive polling of the youth demographic, paints a different picture, with the Liberal Democrats polling third among students who plan to vote in Cambridge at 20.3 per cent – nearly five per cent behind the Greens and 13 per cent behind Labour.

Student disaffection with the Liberal Democrats, often attributed to Nick Clegg’s broken promise not to raise annual tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000, could prove decisive in the upcoming election.

Such disaffection is reflected in the National Union of Students ‘Liar Liar’ campaign, launched last week, which seeks to target those 36 Lib Dem MPs who voted to increase tuition fees in 2010, though some criticised the £40,000 cost of the campaign.

A counter-campaign has been set up called #trollNUS, which encourages students to undermine the “long tradition” of Labour dominance in the NUS by donating to the Lib Dems.

As a second-year student from Emmanuel told Varsity: “As one of the few year groups that, in all probability, will ever be affected by the highest tuition fees that this country has ever seen, I could never vote Lib Dem in this election.”

Ilott, however, insists that “our [Green] appeal for young people isn’t just about how much money we’d leave in their pockets”.

“Our values resonate with the ambitions of today’s youth to build a better society for their own children,” he told us.

“Fundamentally, I have yet to meet a single Green activist who’s not incandescently charming.”

However, Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat PPC for Cambridge and MP for Cambridge in the last Parliament, stated that he remained confident in student support in the upcoming election.

“What is quite clear is that when students listen to all the candidates, the result is very different. At the hustings event at the Cambridge Union, after hearing us all speak, the Labour vote share declined whereas mine increased substantially to 40 per cent,” he told us.

“I know students want to support someone who will stand up for them and their values and I am committed to that. They know that I kept my promise and voted against tuition fees, unlike when Cambridge had a Labour MP, who promised to oppose them and then voted in favour... I have championed the living wage, secured same-sex marriage, worked to ban revenge porn and pushed the government for more action on climate change.”

Certainly, it is a noted trend nationally that Lib Dem incumbents poll more highly in personal approval ratings than their party. A survey in The Cambridge Student (TCS) published yesterday asked which candidate respondents would vote for, rather than which party, and found that the Liberal Democrats polled second only to Labour. While the TCS poll was hosted on a Google document, and could thus be accessed by those who are not members of the Cambridge student community, its 732 respondents placed Julian Huppert in a one per cent lead over the Greens.

TCS’s results, which refer only to the Cambridge seat, stand in contrast to Varsity’s survey, which found that the Liberal Democrats came a full five per cent behind the Greens among respondents who said they would vote in Cambridge.

Indeed, this Green surge is corroborated by national data. The Tab national, in a poll released on 21st April, revealed the same trend as Varsity’s overall survey; Labour is favoured among students, followed by the Conservatives, with the Greens coming in third place in front of the Liberal Democrats.

Similarly, a survey conducted of over 500 Cambridge finalists by High Flyers last week found that the Conservatives and Labour were tied at 31 per cent, with Greens taking third place at 23 per cent and the Liberal Democrats coming last with only 12 per cent.

Cambridge political culture: men vote Tory

The political culture of Cambridge students frequently features in the local and national press. Controversy broke out on 15th April after a Vice video entitled ‘Talking Politics with Drunk Toffs at the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race’ claimed to represent the political views of those attending these two universities. The Tab retaliated, stating that “Rather than trying to counter the issues [the presenter] has with ingrained elitism, he is perpetuating them.”

Varsity’s statistics, however, paint a more nuanced picture.

Excluding those colleges that did not return a statistically significant number of respondents, only Downing, Corpus, Trinity and St John’s would elect the Conservative candidate. Left-wing parties fare significantly better: not a single person from King’s voted for the Conservative candidate, with over 47 per cent opting for Labour.

Conservative numbers were also particularly weak at Magdalene and Selwyn, where only six and 15 per cent would vote Tory, respectively. In contrast, no statistically significant college returned a Labour result of below 15 per cent.

Magdalene were also the college with the most Lib Dem voters, at 29 per cent. However, the Lib Dems were not the most popular party at any college, with a plurality of students at Magdalene (37 per cent), still opting to vote Labour. King’s and Selwyn were the only colleges with respondents who would vote for far-left parties, with votes for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition and Left Unity parties.

Conservatives do, however, top the poll among male voters, with 29.8 per cent to Labour’s 27.2. Among women, however, Conservative numbers are a weak 17.0 per cent, behind Labour’s 38.4 per cent and the Greens’ 28.0.

Murray Edwards was the only college to return a majority vote, with 51 per cent of students favouring the Labour candidate.

Olivia Barber, former JCR President at Murray Edwards, is currently the Vice-Chair and Women’s Officer of Cambridge University Labour Club. In the past, she used the JCR President’s email address to advertise a visit from Daniel Zeichner to college members as “an invaluable chance to have your crucial views heard on the issues that you believe need to be focused on should he get elected this May”.

When asked whether she thought this constituted a conflict of interest, and whether she would have advertised a Lib Dem or Tory event in the same manner, she insisted she did not act improperly.

“I don’t particularly see my publicising Daniel Zeichner’s visit to the college bar as a result of my political affiliations, but rather reflective of the fact that other political parties/societies do not organise events like this,” she told us.

“Had any of the other MP candidates chosen to visit the college bar in an attempt to seek out the opinions and concerns of students, I would have of course happily publicised it.”

Murray Edwards’ result is reflected more broadly in a gender breakdown of respondents. Despite controversy over Harriet Harman’s “gimmick” pink bus, Labour fare significantly better with women voters, earning 38.4 per cent of the vote compared to 27.1 per cent among men.

So too do the Greens, who received 28.0 per cent of the vote among women compared to 16.7 per cent among men. The Greens topped the poll at Newnham, with 33 per cent of the vote compared to Labour’s 31 per cent.

The Chair of the Cambridge Young Greens, Luke Ilott, put this appeal down to the Greens’ desire to “build a fairer society”.

What does this mean?

The range of surveys and polls conducted in the student press over the past weeks are unanimous in showing the Liberal Democrats are haemorrhaging their left wing to a revived Labour and surging Green Party.

Popular conceptions that the Conservatives are unelectable in this seat, despite Fernando’s protestations to the contrary, are also borne out by the headline figures for those voting in Cambridge, though support for the Tories more broadly among the student body remains considerable.

Striking in their absence are UKIP, despite their candidate for Cambridge being a highly notable figure in the national party. Receiving only 2.1 per cent of the overall vote, there were no votes for UKIP at more than half of statistically significant colleges.

What is clear is that the Ashcroft polling for Cambridge was significantly lacking in representation from 18-24 year olds, students whose votes could be decisive in this marginal constituency come 7th May.

With less than two weeks until polling day, the Varsity survey should help focus the conversation on this representation.


This survey was only accesible through the Cambridge-specific ‘Raven’ portal, meaning it was only open to those affiliated with the university.

The sample size of this survey was 6 per cent of the grad and undergrad population of Cambridge.

Because each response was associated with a unique code anonymously linked to each Raven log-in, this meant any duplicate responses could be filtered out in the final calculations.

Homerton and Girton Colleges were treated separately in the calculation for the Cambridge seat, as they fall in the South Cambridgeshire constituency. Students at these colleges can therefore not vote in the Cambridge constituency.

Key to the results chart

1,063 unique respondents in total, 974 of whom specified who they would vote for; results are collated into the pie chart.
In the calculation of voting patterns between Cambridge and home constituencies, the 95 respondents from Homerton and Girton Colleges were excluded, as they fall in the South Cambridgeshire constituency. Of 727 unique respondents who indicated their intention to vote in Cambridge, 683 indicated which party they would be voting for, whose results are collated on the “Home” graph. Of 185 unique entries who indicated their intention to vote in home constuencies, 169 indicated which party they would be voting for, whose results are collated on the “Away” graph.
Of 1,063 unique respondents, 1,043 specified their gender, of whom 584 were male and 454 female, of whom 544 and 411 respectively indicated which party they would vote for.
Of 1,063 unique respondents, 1,030 indicated college affiliation. Colleges were judged as statistically significant if they returned more than 30 respondents who indicated an intention to vote; see facing for the 19 colleges included.