General Election 2019: Voting patterns in student seats

Before the election campaign, commentators wondered whether the choice of a December election date, close to the end of most university terms, would impact on students voting.  

Votes are anonymous and are only counted in aggregate for a whole constituency. This means that voting data can never tell us directly how any sub-group of the electorate voted – although some opinion polls provide estimates for different ages and social groups.

However, this Insight considers where students live across Great Britain, referred to as ‘student seats’, the results in these areas, and how they compare to other ‘young seats’ that have fewer resident students.

Where are the ‘student seats’?

A map showing where student seats are with green dots indicating a constituency. Larger dots are used to show where there is one or more student seats in close proximity.

Here we look at the 77 constituencies in Great Britain where more than 10% of the voting-age population were students at the time of the 2011 census. The map to the right shows each constituency location with a dot (with larger numbered dots showing that there is more than one ‘student seat’ in close proximity). We can look at voting data in these constituencies where many students live, to see whether patterns differed from the national picture.

This list ranges from Sheffield Central, where 35.4% of adult residents were students at the census, to Salford & Eccles (10.1%). The list includes many places that would be commonly thought of as ‘university cities’ – Nottingham, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Leicester – as well as others like Preston, Bournemouth West, and Luton South.

Even in these constituencies, most voters aren’t students. This means that the results and trends in voting behaviour might be due to other residents, and we should avoid drawing strong conclusions from this data about how students voted. However, if students had systematically different voting patterns to the rest of the population, we might expect to find that the aggregate results for these ‘student seats’ differed from the national averages.

Note, however, that some students may have voted at their place of permanent residence rather than at their university address.

What were the results in ‘student seats’?

Turnout in ‘student seats’ was 65.6% – below the GB total of 67.5%. This turnout gap is similar to 2017, when turnout in ‘student seats’ was 67.1% and the GB total was 68.9%. So, there is little evidence of a disproportionate drop in turnout in these seats, despite the worries about a December election falling near the end of term.

In 2019, Labour won 55 out of 77 ‘student seats’. This is perhaps not surprising given that younger people are much more likely to vote Labour than older people, and ‘student seats’ are younger than average. Labour won almost half of votes cast in these 77 seats – and 18% of the party’s total national votes came from these seats, compared with 7% of all Conservative votes. The Conservatives won 10 of the seats.

Eight of the 12 ‘student seats’ in Wales and Scotland were won by Plaid Cymru (PC) or the SNP respectively.

Two bar graphs showing  the general election results in 77 student seats in Great Britain. On the left there is the vote share, with Labour gaining the majority with 49.8% followed by the Conservatives with 25.9% and the Lib Dems with 11.7%. The Brexit Party got the smallest percentage with 2.4%. On the right the chart shows seats won. Labour won the most in these areas with 55 seats, the Conservatives won 10, the Lib Dems won 3, SNP and Plaid Cymru won 8, the Greens one 1 and Brexit Party won 0 seats.

Just three of these seats changed hands in 2019. Two of the Conservative Party’s 58 national gains were in ‘student seats’: Lincoln and Stoke-on-Trent Central. The Lib Dems gained North East Fife, home to St Andrews University, from the SNP. The other 74 seats didn’t change hands.

The average electorate in these seats was 74,438, which is 1.7% above the national average constituency size. This has changed since the last election – in 2017, ‘student seats’ had the same average electorate as the national average. The voting-age population has been growing faster here than elsewhere, with population estimates showing a 1.1% increase between 2017 and 2018 in ‘student seats’ compared with a national increase of 0.6%.

How did voting change in these seats?

Did these constituencies follow the national trend of a swing towards the Conservatives, or did they exhibit different voting behaviour?

  • The Conservatives didn’t gain vote share in student seats. Their vote in student seats fell by 0.8 percentage points, compared with a national rise of 1.3 percentage points.
  • Labour’s vote share fell too, but not as much as elsewhere in the country. Its share in student seats fell by 6.1 percentage points compared with an 8.1 percentage point fall nationally.
  • The Lib Dems saw the largest increase of any party, but their rise was nevertheless smaller in student seats than elsewhere.
A bar chart showing the vote share in 77 student seats during the general election. It shows the difference between the change in student seats and the national change.

What about other ‘young seats’ with fewer students?

Some might wonder whether the figures above simply reflect the younger age profile of these seats, rather than the ‘student vote’. However, the results are markedly different from other ‘young seats’, that don’t have many resident students.

There are 35 constituencies which have fewer than 4% students despite being in the ‘youngest’ 35% of all seats – that is, constituencies where the median age of the 18+ population is below 47. Examples include Crawley, Gloucester, Halifax, Ipswich, Bromley, Stevenage, Stockport, and Milton Keynes.

In 2019 the Conservatives won 26 of these 35 seats, while Labour won eight and the Lib Dems won one. Labour’s vote share performance was worse in these seats than the national average. In 2017 it trailed by six percentage points in these seats, but this grew to 17 percentage points in 2019. Labour’s loss in vote share was greater than the national average, despite these being younger-than-average seats. In 2017 these were also ‘Conservative-leaning’ seats, with a larger average Conservative lead than observed nationally.

Two bar charts showing the vote share changes in 35 'younger seats' with few students. On the left the results from 2017 are shown. The Conservatives had 48.5% and Labour 42.7%. On the right the results from 2019 are shown. The Conservatives had 50.8% and Labour 33.3%.

Further reading

General Election 2019: How does the result compare to other elections in 2019? House of Commons Library.

General Election 2019: How many women were elected? House of Commons Library.

General Election 2019: Full results and analysis, House of Commons Library.


About the author: Carl Baker is a statistician at the House of Commons Library, specialising in social and general statistics.