The transient population: Voting in Cambridge

Image credit: Alex Lee

Where do you live? No, it’s not a trick question – although perhaps it would be better to ask a slightly different one: where do you call home? Students, after all, have two addresses – their university accomodation, and the home that they spend the holidays in. While some might call their room at university ‘home’, others insist on making the distinction between where they live for their studies and their family home – even though they might spend more time in the former than the latter.

Many students, after their first year, choose to rent a home with a group of friends – meaning such students could remain in this home permanently for the entire year, both during and outside of their university’s terms.

This is not the case in Cambridge, however. What with the short eight week terms, students are usually only in the city from 24 to 30 weeks of the year – meaning some students will be living at their university address for less than half a year, especially seeing as many colleges do not allow students to stay in their accomodation over the vacation. 

Despite this, all students, including those at Cambridge, are recognised as having a “commitment to each place” which they inhabit. Regardless of one’s personal view, it is undeniable that, for the duration of our university course, we straddle both residencies in equal measure; we are both within and without each district, living on a fine cusp of occupancy that leaves us tied to two regions, two locations, two homes.

So where does this leave us when we have to ally ourselves to only one place, such as in the case of voting?

It was in 1970 that this issue reached the fore: in the case of Fox vs Stirk, two students from Cambridge and Bristol Universities appealed against the refusal of electoral registration officers in their University towns to include their names on the electoral register for February 1970, on the grounds that they were not “resident” in the constituencies.

It was a case that raised the question of the meaning of residency. The definition of this term might still remain uncertain, but it was determined by Lord Denning to mean “a person may properly be said to be “resident” in a place when his stay there has a considerable degree of permanence”.

It is within this “considerable degree of permanence” that the right to vote becomes most critical. After all, as Lord Denning acknowledged, international students could vote in their University constituencies whereas home students were unable to – an anomaly that he recognised needed ameliorating.

There was also the matter of absence and residence at any address: Lord Denning asserted that anyone can have “two residences”, and whilst “temporary presence at an address does not make a man resident there”, it was also true that “temporary absence does not deprive a person of his residence”.

Though the two students were unable to occupy their rooms for the entire year, it was found that they had a “considerable degree of permanence” in their University constituencies and hence could be classed as residents. The case found in favour of the two students and the law was changed: students were deemed to qualify as resident in both their hometowns and their University towns, and thus had the ability to choose to vote in either place.

It is clear, therefore, that having a choice of constituency in which to vote – either that of your university address or of your home address – is not as uncontroversial as might be assumed. Indeed, as a recent TCS article pointed out, Labour was successful in the 2017 General Election in constituencies with Russell Group universities. This included the areas which had students voting from the University of Warwick, the University of Durham, the University of Manchester, here in Cambridge, and also in many other university cities.

Considering how significantly the students swung the vote, some might might wonder if Labour would still have won in these constituencies if it hadn’t been for them.

Of the ‘permanent’ locals we spoke to, many expressed their displeasure because it felt as though their voices were being drowned out. One gentleman, who has lived in Cambridge for fifty years, told us “there’s no point me voting”, another asserting his belief “if it wasn’t for the students, Labour wouldn’t have been elected”.

It seems there are two things that form the foundation of opposition to the vote of students in Cambridge: differing political opinions and short length of residency. It would appear that, to some locals, students breeze into the city, sway the election, and then breeze out again to be unaffected by the consequences of their choice in the same way that the more permanent residents of the city are.

However, looking at the different Cambridge MPs since students were first allowed to vote here would suggest otherwise: although the last Conservative MP was elected in 1987, and the constituency has since usually been a close race between the Liberal Democrats and Labour, students were allowed to vote at this time.

In fact, in every election from 1970 and before 1992, Conservative MPs were elected to represent Cambridge in Parliament. Given that the Conservatives had a strong election record in Cambridge prior to 1970 as well, it would seem that students did not cause a sudden, surprising change in result.

There is clearly an ongoing discussion about voting rights: the concept of residency remains hazy and, for some, the feeling that students whose only permanence is in their impermanence can change who represents them in Parliament is contentious.

However, for the majority who supported students’ voting rights in Cambridge, there was a voice of welcoming, with claims that students are “part of the community” who “live part of their life” in the university town, regardless of where their hometown may be. And even if this sentiment doesn’t universally extend to voting for all locals in Cambridge, the feeling of inclusion offered by most is heartwarming.

Perhaps we should all be encouraged by this promotion of students’ voting rights, and try to give back to a community that has accepted us so much by taking them up on this offer to have a say about who should represent our town.

As one local said: it is easier for students to remember to vote “if they’ve got a polling card in their pigeonhole”; going through the rigmarole of organising a postal or proxy vote takes up precious time that we may not have, whereas to vote where you currently reside is a significantly easier task.

Though ultimately, it is, of course, up to you where you vote, having the choice to vote in two constituencies means you have the choice to vote tactically; to vote carefully; to vote for what you believe in and make your voice heard. It is that, after all, that is most important.

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