Last week I took part in i’s first student debate. It was heartening to see hundreds turn out to passionately discuss the challenges the next generation face and how they intend to make their voices heard at the ballot box. But in spite of all the interest inspired by the event, as I gazed through the train window on the way home, I wondered: will those who attended be able to cast their vote at the next general election at all?
Individual electoral registration was quietly passed through in the Government’s Electoral Registration and Administration Act last year. Rather than register as a household, it requires every elector who wishes to exercise their right to vote to apply individually to join the register. The Government says it expects more than 35 million voters to shift over to the new electoral roll. But it is harder to reach groups with more transient living arrangements – students and young people - and even the government admits that these groups stand to lose out from the changes. If you were to live in your family home when you turn 18, student halls in your first year at university, and then moved to rent in both your second and third years, and again when you finished your studies, you would be required to register no less than five times just to vote in the constituency in which you live. The new law requires students to jump through hoops not to lose that hard-fought right to vote.
When we asked students about voting in a poll recently, we found almost half were not registered to vote, just over a third were registered and a further chunk where unsure; hardly surprising given the shifting of the electoral goalposts.
Those students who voted so enthusiastically, only to see politicians’ promises so blatantly broken on tuition, the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance and now, proposals to remove job seekers’ benefit entitlement from young people, are quite likely to have had their faith in voting undermined.
To stop a generation of voices from being lost, NUS has today joined forces with Bite the Ballot – an politically independent social enterprise – to empower all young voters to vote through the first ever National Voter Registration Day (#NVRD), which aims to get 250,000 people signed up to the electoral roll. But that is just the beginning. If each of those register another 10, we will be building our power and getting poised to use it.
There are huge challenges facing the next generation and just 456 days until the next general election. Politicians have found it too easy in the past to brush aside the concerns of young people and students, or worse still, to make promises only to betray them and then expect to get away with it, because they judge us to be powerless and apathetic.
By registering to vote now we put ourselves as pins on the electoral map, and by registering en masse our generation can populate the political landscape of the UK with a powerful force that politicians will ignore at their peril. Our task is to make our generation too powerful to ignore, and if we are registered to vote and in possession of a ballot paper, it is the politicians who will have to have to sit up from their slumbers, and take notice of us.
Toni Pearce is president of the National Union of Students.
This article was published in the i newspaper on February 5th.