Students going home could put 35 Tory seats at risk in election, analysis says

<span>The analysis suggests Esther McVey, a Cabinet Office minister who was first elected MP for Tatton in 2017, will struggle to hold on to the seat.</span><span>Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
The analysis suggests Esther McVey, a Cabinet Office minister who was first elected MP for Tatton in 2017, will struggle to hold on to the seat.Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock

More than 30 Conservative seats are at risk of changing hands because of students returning home for the summer holidays, according to analysis of how student voters could influence the outcome of the UK’s general election.

The cabinet minister Esther McVey’s Tatton constituency is one of the 35 suburban or rural seats where Tory hopes could be dashed by students registered to vote at their family home, rather than their university term-time address.

Related: More than half of UK students working long hours in paid jobs

The warning comes before Tuesday’s deadline to register to vote in the election, with the National Union of Students (NUS) urging its members to sign up.

Voting analysis by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) suggests that deciding to hold the general election during summer was a strategic error that could hamper Conservative efforts to stem their losses, with polling showing very weak support for the party among those aged 18-24.

Josh Freeman, Hepi’s policy manager and author of the analysis, said: “The 2024 general election will be unusual. Most recent elections have taken place in term-time, giving Labour large majorities in constituencies with lots of student voters. But in 2024, many of these students will go back to their home addresses. Some of these happen to be the formerly safe seats the Conservatives are now rushing to defend.”

Related: UK general election: the seats the Tories will lose if the polls are right

The Hepi analysis, based on student electoral registrations and YouGov constituency forecasts from earlier this month, suggests that McVey, a Cabinet Office minister who was first elected MP for Tatton in 2017, will struggle to hold on to her seat.

YouGov’s polling has the redrawn constituency on a knife edge between McVey and her Labour rival, Ryan Jude. Hepi’s research shows that the number of returning students – 1,800, representing 2.4% of the electorate – is larger than the margin separating the leading candidates in YouGov’s forecasts.

Among the 35 constituencies, the newly created seat of Harpenden and Berkhamsted, in Hertfordshire, could receive an influx of 2,500 students. Meanwhile, 2,000 or more students moving back home could swing the results in Finchley and Golders Green, Windsor, Tunbridge Wells and Michael Gove’s old seat of Surrey Heath.

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Chloe Field, the National Union of Students (NUS) vice-president for higher education, said: “By calling the election at a time when young people are highly politicised, highly engaged and desperate for change, the prime minister could have handed student voters not just the keys to university towns but to the country.

“And it’s now up to all politicians to take note and give us a convincing offer: bring back maintenance grants, control rents, abolish tuition fees and give young people some hope and a reason to vote enthusiastically.”

Labour and Conservatives have so far offered little aimed at student voters. The Conservative manifesto planned to expand apprenticeships in place of “low value” university courses, while Labour promised a “secure future” for higher education.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats plan a review of higher education finance if in government, while the Green party proposes to abolish tuition fees and reintroduce student maintenance grants.

In Hepi’s survey of 10,000 undergraduates earlier this year, 69% said they were registered only at their permanent address, while 15% were registered at both their term-time and permanent addresses. Students are allowed to register at both places but are only able to vote once.

Related: Next government must make hard university funding decisions, fast

However, the survey also found that only 68% of students said they intended to vote in the general election, including 66% of students aged 21 or under.

The NUS campaign for students to register and vote includes offering a free CitizenCard photo ID, which can be used as voter identification in England, Scotland and Wales. So far, more than 21,000 have signed up.

Freeman agreed that the election’s timing meant the student vote could be more potent than usual, and said students should “take the time to register so they aren’t kicking themselves on 5 July”.

“And the political parties, whether or not they have historically attracted many student voters, should think carefully about how they can win over students on election day,” Freeman added.

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