Since the recent referendum – through which the UK voted by a small but clear majority to leave the European Union – membership of the Liberal Democrat Party has increased by 11%, gaining an enormous 10,000 new members.
This came after the party pledged to fight the next general election on the basis of remaining in the EU.
Students and young people voted overwhelmingly against the so-called ‘Brexit’ in the recent referendum, with 75% of 18-24 year olds voting to remain (YouGov poll).
So, will the Lib Dem pledge be enough for the party to win back its alienated student voters?
The overall vote to leave has led to many young voters feeling excluded from the political future of the UK. Throughout the period leading up to the referendum, the campaigns of parties across the political spectrum were widely criticised by young people for failing to consider their interests.
One of the few elements of the Remain Campaign targeted at young voters – the #VOTIN video – was deemed as patronising rather than informative, with many young people taking to social media to voice their criticisms.
Following the vote to leave, the Lib Dems, a pro-EU party, have sought to capitalise on the apparent disenfranchisement of the young population.
In a post-referendum speech, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said:
“What stands out to me more than anything, is the great injustice to future generations. It looks like younger voters voted to remain at a staggering margin – almost three-quarters wanting to stay in. Their future has been taken away by older generations.
What a tragedy that older voters, the people who have been able to benefit from European integration, have removed the opportunity for those coming behind them.”
Much of what the Lib Dems most publicly stand for is in line with the general student consensus: opposition to the harshest Conservative government austerity measures, greater investment in education, policies to affect climate change, and support for a Cannabis Legalisation Bill.
Despite this, the party’s reputation was tainted the eyes of many students when it failed to keep its promise not to raise university tuition fees in 2010.
The Lib Dems gained a large proportion of student support in the run up to the 2010 general election by including free university education in their manifesto. After the election, however, they voted in favour of the Conservative proposal to increase tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000.
Twenty-seven Liberal Democrat MPs, including Vince Cable and then party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, voted in favour of the proposal, with only twenty-one voting against and eight abstaining.
A poll conducted by Channel 4 at the time showed that the percentage of students supporting the Lib Dems had fallen from 42% to 11%, and that 83% of students felt let down by the Lib Dems.
If there were to be another general election, in spite of their recent rise in popularity, it seems likely that they would have to form a coalition with another party – again reducing their power.
Will recent Lib Dem promises to reject Brexit be enough to win back student support? That is certainly what the party is currently seeking to do. As Tim Farron’s speech demonstrates, in seeking to show its dedication to the interests of young people, the party is working to establish itself as an alternative to other leading political groups perceived as out of touch with the youth, and as a beacon of hope for those left reeling by the recent vote to leave the EU.
The success of this campaign remains to be seen. If the Lib Dems truly want to regain their student support, however, they will need to prove they can keep their promises and are able to exercise power in a coalition.