I almost didn’t vote in the local election. The polling stations closed at 10pm, and at 9:45pm I was standing on the edge of Parker’s Piece, alone, trying to guess where I was supposed to be. Not there, as it turned out; my boyfriend ran back to my room, checked my polling card then directed me to where I was actually supposed to be. I voted at 9:57pm.
During the period in which it seemed unlikely I would make it to vote in time, I felt slightly guilty. I’d had a really busy day and vaguely intended to go out and vote at some point without really allotting time for it. This led me to question why student turnout for voting is so notoriously low: are we all too busy? Is there too little engagement in politics for young people?
"I was going to vote by post but completely forgot."
Outside the polling station there were party members checking who was voting, assumedly with the intention of targeting election leaflets at those who were and shaming those who weren’t into doing so in future. This is one tactic for engaging with us, another assumedly being the ‘personal’ letters from different candidates we received in our pidges. Perhaps the fault for low turnouts lies with local MPs for failing to make themselves relevant to students: in the time I’ve been at Cambridge the most significant engagement with local authorities has been the backlash against cuts to street-lighting.
But then again, perhaps the fault lies with us. One friend I spoke to said that she did think the outcome of the local election would affect her, but admitted that she was “lazy” and “didn’t actually make any effort at all” to vote because she couldn’t be bothered to find the ID number needed to register. Now, it’s not that this is one example of a student who is politically apathetic and uninterested in students’ voices being heard: she is, in fact, highly opinionated and an active feminist and altruist.
Another friend, who is a paid-up party member, also described himself as a “lazy person” and did not vote because he has “never felt affected by the local council”. One didn’t realise you could register to vote at university and at home, and three friends I contacted at other Russell Group universities gave reasons against voting from “I couldn’t be bothered to find the polling station” to “I actually don’t even know what the vote was on”.
"I have never felt affected by the local council."
Of course, I hardly gained a comprehensive or representative sample of Cambridge students’ views, let alone all students’, and it also must be noted that some are enthusiastically politically active. My boyfriend, a member of the Labour club, said that he voted because he wanted to “express support for Labour on the national stage” and emphasised the importance of the youth vote, as “politicians will not cater for young people if they think they won’t gain any electoral traction from it.”
“Pensions are jealously protected largely because older voters turn out. Young people get tuition fees and youth unemployment foisted on them because there’s currently no political price to pay for doing so.” Unfortunately, this seems to be true. Although the Green Party has the biggest young members’ network, it only has one seat in parliament, and even at the general election in 2015 only 58% of 18 to 25 year olds voted (8 points below the national average).
Greater engagement with students at a local and national level is needed, and the responsibility for this lies with our government. But our engagement with politics must also improve: we are not the apathetic, alienated masses the media would portray us to be, and each of the students who told me that they didn’t vote are deeply opinionated and politically active in other ways. We must start combining our convictions with the two-minutes’ walk to the polling station: our voices should be heard and our political system must be fully democratic. One vote may not appear to harness much power, but the student population can influence politics, whether it be at the Brexit vote or next general election.