The decline of the public meeting is one of the staples of any discussion about changing electoral tactics. David Butler’s study of the 1951 election found a full 30% of the public claiming to have gone to at least one public meeting; by the 1966 election, an NOP poll found the figure had declined to just 4%. Public meetings organised by the parties have now died out almost completely. Yet cross-party meetings – with the various candidates on display, showing their wares – still occasionally continue, and when they happen they can be both fun and informative.
Last night saw the five known candidates for Nottingham South singing for their supper at the University’s conference centre, in a debate organised by the Students Union and the Politics Society. It attracted about 250 students, who enjoyed a good 90 minutes of lively debate between the candidates.
There has been a Nottingham South constituency, in some form, almost continuously since 1885 – and in that time it’s been represented by Liberals, Conservatives, and Labour MPs. Of the three Nottingham seats, it’s by far the most marginal, and boundary changes since the last election have make it slightly more marginal still, as has the decision of the incumbent MP, Alan Simpson, to stand down.
It’s the constituency in which (most of) the University of Nottingham sits, and in which (most of) its students live. It’s appropriate that one of the candidates, standing for the Greens, is a Nottingham student, since one of the things that marks Nottingham South out is its high student population – just under 1 in 4 of the population of the seat are in full-time education, and part of the point of the debate was to raise student awareness of their voting power, as part of the campaign against higher fees.
Students’ rarely exercise as much voting power as they could. Most are 18-21, the group with the lowest turnout in the electorate. And although there are constituencies containing large numbers of students, their votes are often spread between those seats and the constituencies from which they have originally come, and where many remain registered, which diminishes their collective impact. Yet the student vote can still matter, if organised properly, and given the right issues – as Labour MPs at the last election found to their cost in Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff and Sheffield. The Labour candidate in Nottingham South has clearly been paying attention – witness her public pledge, repeated last night, to vote against any rise in student top-up fees, should the government go down that route after the election. Under questioning, similar pledges to support the students’ campaign were made by the Lib Dem and Green candidates, whilst the Conservative said that she’d examine the details of the campaign.
Professor Philip Cowley