Labour, Fees And The Electoral Reality

The Labour party traditionally claims, with some justification, to be the party of the youth vote, particularly the student vote. Every college and campus in this country has a fairly left leaning presence in its politics, if not outright domination of political life, as in the case of the NUIM Students Union, sarcastically dubbed the “Soviet Union” by some due to high proportion of LY members in its make-up.

But Labour has a problem. Following its decision to become the minority Party in government, its youth wing has operated almost as a separate entity, an opposition group. They resisted the commitment of becoming part of a coalition and have made the issue of student fees and grants something with which to do battle with its parent group. Some LY members of my acquaintance seem more and more outwardly hostile towards Gilmore and co in recent months.

And, with the news that the entire system of Postgraduate support is likely for the chopping board, not to mention the continuing looming threat of the reintroduction of some sort of Third Level fee system, it would seem that a rather substantial break between Labour and Labour Youth – between Labour and the student body they claim to be the representative of – is about to take place. Such a break would be a long time coming, but has never been so likely as in the last few months of this year.

If Labour does go ahead and vote for the ending of such postgrad privileges, and  for the creation of some sort of fee system, that break will occur. They will no longer be able to rely upon the youth vote, the student vote. The Labour Youth organisation will no longer be something they can even rightly associate themselves with, as rebellious as it already is. LY will become, for all intents and purposes, a completely separate organisation, with a completely separate primary agenda. Even worse, some Labour TDs may even lose the party whip, choosing to go with a seditious course and distance themselves from what, if you’ll pardon an overused term, is becoming a toxic brand.

Moreover, Labour will be forever tarnished in the eyes of its supporters across the board. Labour has always been the student-friendly party, making much campaign hay out of their part in the revocation of fees in the first place, in their last stint in government. To do an about-turn on that issue now, in the wake of clear and open promises to do the opposite, would be nothing short of a PR, and potentially electoral, disaster.

I say potentially because I am not convinced that the reintroduction of fees or the termination of postgrad grants will be a major blow to the party, certainly not the one that some make it out to be.

Labour claims the youth vote, but the simple fact of the matter is, the youth do not vote, not in any huge, decisive numbers. You may get them to listen, express support, sign a petition, maybe even campaign, but actually getting them to vote is an altogether more difficult proposition. It is as hard to get the youth to vote as it is easy to get the elderly to. Too many of them simply either don’t care, are genuinely unable to (like, say, the recent Thursday election), or lack the energy to actually walk to a polling station when it matters. Perhaps it is a gross generalisation, but I know many students who would balk at even filling out a form to register to vote, never mind actually take part in the process. I know family members under 25 who actively go out of their way to avoid politics.

As data backs up, those under the age of 25 are more likely to not be registered, to not vote if they are, and to have little to no interest in politics. While this has not been a constant trend (youth interest in politics and polling turnout has been on a general, if slow, increase), it is still prevalent. Denying this is pointless.

That is all to say, while Labour has benefitted from that part of the youth vote that has actually gone to ballot, they are not entirely dependent on it for electoral support. It makes for a good picture, Gilmore surrounded by students and the young, helps the party with its vibrant image, but the youth did not get Labour into power.

And the same can be said for those members of third level education who actually do get to a polling booth. They may not want to vote Labour after the reintroduction of fees, but is simply too difficult to get them to vote at all, in large numbers, for Labour or for anyone else.

Further, while Labour may have taken much of the youth that did vote, plenty of them voted for other parties in the last election anyway. The Ogra wings of nearly all of Ireland’s political parties are substantial.

Labour would probably lose out more in terms of election time support – staff, canvassers and the like – but I would argue that only the real party faithful, those who will vote always vote Labour, are in that grouping.

That, and the overall negative opinion of the fees issue is over-estimated in my opinion. Sure, those students who vote, and those parents who support them, may think twice about giving Labour a preference. But that is a finite demographic. Labour has plenty of others who will continue to give them the numbers they need. And as well, and the student demographic is so generally scattered all over the country, between every constituency, that the overall affect in Labour polling numbers might actually be negligible.

Moreover, I see a not inconsiderable element for whom the fee issue is either one of non-importance, in that it has no tangible effect on their lives, or who believe that students actually should be forced to pay. The actions and tone of certain student protests, which reek of undeserved arrogance and self-entitlement, do not help matters. That is, students protests which point blank refuse to consider any sort of cut, fee or anything of the kind, do not read that well with the general population sometimes. Some simply think that students should pay a share of their education, rather than having the tax-payer do it.

It’s all debatable. On a moral and personal level, I would be completely opposed to such a policy if forced to give an opinion, for many reasons, but I am merely speaking on an electoral level here.

That personal view of the fees debate has fluctuated wildly over the last few years, once I finished college and entered the postgrad world, where fees are a concrete reality. Where once it was a core issue for me, it is now not even of tertiary importance.

If fees are to be re-introduced, which appears more and more inevitable, I would prefer a system that takes advantage of post-graduation earnings of students, as opposed to making them all pay upfront. Anything else runs the high risk of making third-level education the preserve of only the rich and elements of the middle-class.

Certainly, the way third level is going, it is not feasible to continue without an injection of finance, an injection that the government is unable to offer. Of course, I might suggest that the inflated salaries of university Presidents could help with that, but the current government does not seem to think that option to be worthy of consideration.

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