In Cheltenham, Students Could Stop the Tories

At the 2017 general election, the Conservatives won Cheltenham with just 2,569 votes. Can tactically-voting students from Gloucestershire university swing it this year?
December 3, 2019, 9:15am
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I'm in a media department building at the University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham and it has finally stopped raining outside. On this damp November night, around 250 students, staff and members of the public have gathered for a political hustings between the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative candidates hoping to win the south west of England constituency.

This kind of event isn't usually top of the agenda for a parliamentary candidate – hustings tend to attract voters who have already made up their minds. However, the Tories won Cheltenham in the 2017 general election with just 2,569 votes between them and the Lib Dems. There are 9,000 students at the University of Gloucestershire, meaning that the audience tonight could decide Cheltenham’s next MP.

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A general election hustings at the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham.

Made up of around 77,937 voters, the constituency has swung between Conservative and Lib Dem since elections began. In 2015, Cheltenham elected Conservative MP Alex Chalk after 28 years of Lib Dem representation, in an election that saw the Lib Dem MP count fall from 57 to eight. In the most recent election in 2017, Chalk held onto his seat – but only just.

The town itself, located in the county of Gloucestershire and close to the picturesque Cotswolds, had the fourth-highest rate of multi-millionaires per 100,00 people in the UK in 2011. It is also home to Cheltenham racecourse and the historic private school Cheltenham Ladies' College. However, Cheltenham is not without its deprivation – in some wards, more than 40 percent of children live in poverty. It is overwhelmingly white British – 88.3 percent – according to the 2011 census. In the 2016 EU referendum, 56 percent of Cheltenham voted to remain. There was one gay club in the city, but it closed in 2014.

Back in the university’s media building, quiet chatter fills the room before the debate begins, and students from the television and film production course adjust the cameras that will broadcast the event live on YouTube. There is an added weight to tonight's proceedings, as it’s the last day that people can register to vote.

The three candidates take their seats on stage. It's a small panel, due to candidates from the Green Party and Brexit Party stepping down as part of respective pacts with the Lib Dems and Conservatives. Chalk, the current Conservative MP and an ex-barrister, is slick and well-spoken. George Penny – who looks about 17 but is actually 22 – is the anachronistically-dressed law graduate from Cheltenham, running for Labour. Although Penny is standing in an un-winnable seat, he is erudite and convincing. Finally, there is Max Wilkinson, the Lib Dem candidate, who is nice but lacks the political charisma and rhetoric of his opposing two candidates. But with around 2,500 votes separating him from victory, Wilkinson is under the biggest pressure to win the room tonight.

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University of Gloucestershire student Cathal Lynch asks the candidates a question on the NHS.

Students from the audience begin to ask their pre-selected questions. Cheltenham’s concerns reflect that of the country’s, alongside more localised issues (everyone is very angry about something called “Boots Corner,” which I later find out is a road). The first question is on what each candidates’ first and second choice for Brexit would be. The second concerns climate change policies, and the third is on the NHS.

“Last year, NHS privatisation reached record levels of over £9 billion and since 2010, social care spending shrank by £7 million,” says Cathal Lynch, a University of Gloucestershire student. “How can we trust the Conservative government going forward to look after the health and wellbeing of our citizens?” Chalk is first to answer. “I think the NHS is the most precious national institution we have,” he says, but before he can finish he’s interrupted by a heckle from Lynch. “So why are you ruining it?” A cheer erupts in the hall.

The centre-right political make-up of Cheltenham makes it a tough seat for students to vote in. Not only are 18 to 24-year-olds more likely to vote Labour than Lib Dem or Tory, but students are hardly falling over themselves to elect the Lib Dems after Nick Clegg's 2012 U-turn on raising university fees. Although those starting uni this year would have only been 11 when the Lib Dems went back on their promise, the party's reputation among young people has never quite recovered. Most students I speak to are keen to vote Labour, but many are putting this allegiance to the side in order to tactically vote.

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Laura Duncan, who will be tactically voting Lib Dem in Cheltenham.

“For me, [the biggest issue is] the NHS,” Laura Duncan, a 20-year-old, religion, philosophy and ethics student tells me. “My mum has worked for the NHS for 30 years and they do a lot for me with medical issues, so that's the main thing for me, so I always go for whatever party was best for the NHS.”

How will she vote? “I was going to vote Labour,” Duncan says, “and then I realised I was better off voting Lib Dem.”

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Students of the University of Gloucestershire, including Ashley Sutton (right) who is an undecided voter.

Two other students I speak to before the debate hold a similar viewpoint. “Ideally, my heart’s on Labour,” Chris Mead, a first-year music student, says. “I wouldn’t want to vote for anyone else, but judging by the demographic of Cheltenham and the general wealth of the people in Cheltenham, will Labour actually win? I don’t know whether voting Labour is a wasted vote.”

His friend, Hayden, a Masters student in communication and PR, is also unsure. “I think I’m going to vote for Labour,” he tells me. “I want to vote Labour but it’s just whether it’s the right thing to do here because I just want the Tories out. I would [consider voting Lib Dem], absolutely, even though I’m not that into them either.”

Creative writing student Ashley Sutton, however, is an undecided voter. “I don’t know [who I’m voting for]. I know a bit about all the parties, but I try not to let other people's opinions influence me because it's important to get what I want and what I feel passionate about,” she says. “Coming here was important to get more of an idea of who to go with and see what the MPs are like and how they act and how they act.”

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However, convincing students like Sutton to vote Lib Dem is just one of the challenges of chasing the student vote. In 2017, only 40 to 50 percent of those aged between 18 and 25 turned out to vote, despite being eligible. Many University of Gloucestershire students will opt to vote at their home constituency, rather than their term time address. Not only that, but the university doesn’t have a politics society, department or course, meaning political engagement here isn't as high as typical student areas. Half of its campus is split into the neighbouring constituency of Gloucester, with lines even running through one of the university’s halls, making it confusing to know where to vote.

Clearly, any parliamentary candidate standing in Cheltenham has their work cut out.

*

The day before the hustings, I join Max Wilkinson with a group of Lib Dem canvassers. A few young people from the local area have been cobbled together for my benefit, but there aren’t any University of Gloucestershire students with us. As we gather on a street corner, the smell of weed fills the air and the canvassers laugh, asking Wilkinson for recommendations on where to pick up – a reference to the Lib Dems’ liberal drugs policies.

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Max Wilkinson, the Lib Dem candidate for Cheltenham.

Over two hours of knocking on doors in the town's St. Pauls neighbourhood, we only meet two students, and they seem a little terrified of the canvassers. Each tells us that they care about the environment and progressive issues, but don’t keep up with politics or are undecided about who to vote for. I ask one woman how she voted for in the last election, and she says that she can't remember. Another tells one of the canvassers that they normally vote Labour, but will be voting Lib Dem this time to keep the Conservative candidate out. After two hours walking through the pouring rain, we call it a day.

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Afterwards, I sit down with Wilkinson over a beer to talk about how tapping into the student population is going. Wilkinson worked as a local newspaper journalist in Weston-super-Mare, then Cheltenham, before becoming a Lib Dem councillor in 2014.

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Wilkinson canvasses voters in Cheltenham. Photo courtesy of Jonathon Watkins.

“The Lib Dems have a very strong offer on mental health,” Wilkinsons tells me. “There’s a crisis on mental health on university campuses that we need to deal with, we have a strong offer on the environment, and there aren’t a lot of students who are passionately in favour of Brexit so there’s a lot of shared ground with the student population.”

And what about the great betrayal of the 2010 coalition government, when the Lib Dems went back on their election promise and tuition fees rose to as much as £9,000 per year?

“You hear it every now and again,” says Wilkinson. “Most of the time when you hear that issue being raised, you hear it by the parents of students, rather than the students themselves. I think everyone recognises it was a mistake to break the pledge, but it is genuinely not an issue that tends to come up anymore.”

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Wilkinson during the hustings.

Wilkinson’s biggest selling point, however, is not how amazing he would be as an MP or how good the Lib Dems are, but that he would be able to unseat a Tory: “In a place like Cheltenham, there’s a recognition that it’s either going to be Lib Dem or Tory, and people will vote for the Lib Dem because they don’t want the Tories,” he says. “This election is about how we deal with the climate change issue, how we deal with our relationship with the EU in the future, and how we deal with the NHS, and for young people housing is always a massive issue, so there are lots of other things to talk about aside from tuition fees. But I accept that a mistake was made.”

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Back at the debate, Wilkinson manages to land some 'blows,' or rather, some gentle brushes. His mention of mental health policy goes down well with the students, as does a final point on proportional representation, when he says that he regrets the necessity of having to tactically vote.

Otherwise, it’s Penny, the articulate Labour candidate who garners the most claps. This doesn’t seem to bother Chalk, the Conservative candidate, too much. He compliments Penny several times during the debate, saying that he believes he will one day "be in the cabinet.” Perhaps Chalk is being nice, or perhaps he’s aware that splitting the vote between the Lib Dems and Labour will only benefit the Conservatives. With no major dramas, the debate ends, and the candidates swarm into the crowd to talk to students.

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Over 250 University of Gloucestershire students, staff and members of the public joined the audience.

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George Penny (left), the Labour candidate for Cheltenham and Alex Chalk (right), the Conservative candidate defending his seat.

I speak with Penny, the young Labour candidate, as he walks off stage. Is he worried about splitting the vote? “I do not really see it as splitting the vote,” he tells me. “The Labour party has very clear differences from the Liberal Democrats on a range of policy areas. Further, there is no guarantee the Liberal Democrats would not prop up a Conservative government as they did in 2010. The only way, therefore, to guarantee there will be no Conservative government come December 13th is to vote for the Labour party.”

He also notes that in the case of a hung parliament, “demonstrating a moral authority to govern will be vitally important.”

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“If we perform better than we have historically, as I suspect is possible,” he tells me, “we will have very real evidence of the support for our transformative vision of Britain and our legitimate position as the next government.”

With so many factors influencing the student vote here in Cheltenham, it’s hard to predict the outcome on the 13th of December. I find Sutton, the undecided voter, in the crowd just after the debate finishes. I ask whether she is any closer to knowing who to vote for now.

She brushes past me. “Ugh, that’s just made me more annoyed about politics,” she says. “I don’t even want to talk about it. Does my nut in.”

Guess that’s a no then?

@RubyJLL


Ahead of the 2019 General Election, VICE UK has been travelling to key marginals with large student populations, to meet the people living there and find out what's most important to them. Read more from our Swing Party series here.