Battleground Yorkshire: A lot needs to go wrong for Labour to falter in Leeds

In recent years Leeds has become one of the UK’s best cities, in sharp contrast to the decline of the nation’s capital.

It has quickly become one of the most exciting places to live in the country, and with that hype comes a swathe of young people, with many choosing to study at any one of the city’s six universities.

This creates an interesting seat, with Leeds Central and Headingley stretching up and out of the bustling city centre with its impressive nightlife towards the areas with students taking up residence in Hyde Park, Headingley, and Woodhouse to the north of the constituency.

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Some 42 per cent of its population is between 16 and 24, four times the national average, with tens of thousands of students making it the youngest electorate in the country.


Unsurprisingly this makes the seat somewhat of a doddle for Labour, according to the polls.

This year’s four MRP polls put the party on between 58 and 68 per cent of the vote in the seat, with no other party managing 20 per cent according to the projections.

“This does present a challenge,” says Alex Sobel, Labour’s candidate for the seat who currently represents Leeds North West.

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“We have what we call in the political sphere, “churn”, every year there’s a turnover,” he says, pointing to the roughly third of students that leave each year.

“Actually, it's much more than that, because it's not just the fact that people are moving out, people are moving between addresses.”

Keeping track of voters is difficult when getting them to vote, despite the fact that young people are the least likely to vote out of any age group.

“I support the idea that we should have automatic voter registration, which you do in some countries, we actually put huge barriers up to that registration,” Mr Sobel says, adding that many students do not feel they have the “right” to vote in the constituency as they feel they should vote at home where they’ve grown up.

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“It's got harder because the universities used to register everybody to vote in student halls and university accommodation, but that can't happen anymore legally.”

On housing, precarious rents and poor-quality landlords making a tidy profit on substandard multi-occupant homes mean that many students and young people in the seat have a real lack of stability.

The cost of living is going up for everyone, but for students, often without an income, the costs of their maintenance loans is lagging even further behind what they need to survive.

The issues of crime in the city, such as spiking and sexual harassment are keenly felt across the seat.

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For all these issues, many feel the Conservatives are simply not doing enough, and this is not only driving young people towards Labour, it is also shaping the opinions of their families.

Record numbers of students are going to university across the UK, taking their liberal views back to their parents in their hometowns, many of whom were students themselves when it didn’t require tuition fees.

“I find it so crazy for our parent’s generation, it was so different, but I don’t know how sustainable that was,” says Zoe Maxwell, a 21-year old at Leeds Arts University.

“My family were always swing voters but never Labour, it was Lib Dem or Tory, but now they’re looking at Labour.”

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“It’s quite nice seeing people of our parent’s generation not ignoring that anymore,” says Hannah Archer, 21, who studies alongside Ms Maxwell.

“My parents always used to be Tory through-and-through but in the last 5 years it’s changed.

“Coming to uni as well you know a lot more people that are affected by the actual issues as well, like housing or discrimination. I can talk to my parents about people I know where stuff like that has happened to them, and it makes it a bit more personal.”

“They can’t really brush it off, as they’re coming round for tea next week,” adds Ms Maxwell.

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Labour has a delicate balancing act to pull off here, as it needs to seem less progressive to appeal to Conservative voters it has to convince it has changed post-Corbyn, whilst convincing younger voters that it is still the same party that made millions more politically engaged between 2015 and 2020.

“I’m still going to vote for them but it still feels a bit more like career politics [with Sir Keir Starmer],” says Ms Maxwell, adding: “In the local elections I voted Labour but it was a lot of people split 50:50 between Green and Labour.”

Ms Archer said that the impression Sir Keir gives off is that he is a bit “slimy” and is turning off some young voters in the seat.

“When I’m at home it’s a very Conservative area so I always voted Labour when I was registered there, but now I’m in Leeds it’s between Labour and Green,” she said.

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Leeds, compared to other Northern university cities such as York or Durham, has made itself very attractive for students to stay after they graduate.

Andy Moore, 37, has lived in the seat since he went to University since he was 18 and said that the music and culture scene in the city has kept people like him here, while graduates from other universities move to cities such as London.

“I grew up during Tony Blair, and was never really interested in politics because things felt stable.

“Even when the financial crisis hit in 2008, I didn’t really feel it. It wasn’t really till Jeremy Corbyn came on the scene that I finally saw someone who spoke to my politics.

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“I’m still a little torn. I think because it looks like quite a safe Labour seat, I feel like I probably could vote Green.”

If there’s one thing that could unstick Labour in this seat, it’s mobilising the vote of people who want to vote for them.

Whether they have not yet registered, want to vote at home in a Tory seat, feel they are “safe” to vote Green, or even just want to give a post-Corbyn Labour a kicking to remind them that they’re mortal, young voters here do have the tools to provide an upset even if it’s doubtful that they will do so in the numbers required to make that happen.

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