I am in a building of the Media Department of Gloucestershire University, Cheltenham, and it has finally stopped raining outside. On that wet November night, about 250 students, staff members and members of the public rallied for political clashes between Labor, Liberal Democrats and Conservative candidates in hopes of winning the Southwest constituency of the United States. # 39; England.

This type of event is usually not a priority for a parliamentary candidate – clashes tend to attract voters who have already decided. However, the Conservatives won Cheltenham in the 2017 general election with only 2,569 votes between them and the Liberal Democrats. The University of Gloucestershire has 9,000 students, which means that tonight's audience could decide the next Cheltenham MP.


A general election rushes to the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham.

Composed of approximately 77,937 electors, the electoral district has tipped between conservatives and liberals since the beginning of the elections. In 2015, Cheltenham elected Conservative MP Alex Chalk after 28 years of representation of the Lib Dem, in an election in which the number of Lib Lib MPs fell from 57 to eight. In the last election of 2017, Chalk kept his seat, but barely.

The city itself, located in Gloucestershire County and close to the scenic Cotswolds, had the fourth highest rate of multimillionaires per 100,000 population in the UK in 2011. It also houses the Cheltenham Racecourse. and his historic private school. Cheltenham Ladies & # 39; College. Cheltenham suffers no less. In some neighborhoods, over 40% of children live in poverty. According to the 2011 census, the vast majority of them are white Britons (88.3%). In the 2016 EU referendum, 56% of Cheltenham residents voted in favor of maintaining their mandate. There was a gay club in the city, but it closed in 2014.

Back at the university, silent discussions invade the room before the debate begins, and students in the TV and film production course adjust the cameras to broadcast the event live on YouTube. Tonight's debates have added weight because this is the last day people can register to vote.

The three candidates take place on the stage. It is a small group, because of the resignation of candidates of the parties of the Greens and Brexit under the respective pacts with the liberal Democrats and the conservatives. Chalk, the current Conservative MP and former lawyer, is skilled and speaks well. George Penny – who looks like he's about 17 but actually 22 – is an anachronistically dressed law clerk dressed for the Labor Party. Although Penny occupies an impossible seat to win, he is scholarly and convincing. Finally, there is Max Wilkinson, the candidate of Lib Dem, who is nice but lacks the political charisma and rhetoric of his opponents. But with about 2,500 votes separating him from the win, Wilkinson is under the greatest pressure to win the show tonight.

Cathal Lynch, a student at the University of Gloucestershire, asks candidates about the NHS.

Audience students begin to ask their pre-selected questions. Cheltenham's concerns reflect those of the country, along with more localized problems (everyone is very angry about something called "Boots Corner", which I will later discover as a road). The first question is about the first and second choice choices of each candidate for Brexit. The second concerns policies to combat climate change and the third concerns the NHS.

"Last year, the privatization of the NHS reached a record level of more than £ 9 billion and since 2010, welfare spending has decreased by £ 7 million," said Cathal Lynch, student at the University of Gloucestershire. "How can we trust the Conservative government to ensure the health and well-being of our citizens?" Says Chalk first. "I think the NHS is the most valuable national institution we have," he says, but before he can finish, he is interrupted by Lynch's heckling. "So why are you ruining it?" An acclamation broke out in the hall.

The center-right political composition of Cheltenham makes it difficult for students to vote. Not only are young people aged 18 to 24 years more likely to vote for Labor than Lib Dem or Tory, but students do not elect Liberal Democrats after Nick Clegg's U-turn in 2012 on increasing tuition fees. Although those who started working at the university this year were only 11 years old when the Liberal Democrats kept their promises, the party's reputation among young people never really recovered. . Most of the students I speak to want to vote for the Labor Party, but many put this allegiance aside to vote tactically.

Laura Duncan, who will tactically vote Lib Dem in Cheltenham.

"For me, [the biggest issue is] the NHS, "says Laura Duncan, a 20-year-old student of religion, philosophy, and ethics. "My mother has been working for the NHS for 30 years and they do a lot for me with medical problems. It is therefore essential for me. That's why I always choose the best party for the NHS. "

How will she vote? "I was going to vote for the Labor Party," Duncan said, "and then I realized I'd better vote for Lib Dem."

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

The other two students I spoke to before the debate share the same point of view. "Ideally, my heart is at work," says Chris Mead, a freshman music student. "I would not want to vote for anyone else, but judging by Cheltenham's demographics and the general wealth of the people of Cheltenham, will the Labor Party really win? not if voting for Labor is a wasted vote. "

His friend Hayden, a master's student in communication and public relations, is also uncertain. "I think I'm going to vote for the Labor Party," he told me. "I want to vote for the Labor Party, but I wonder if it's the right thing to do here, because I just want the Tories to be eliminated. I would like [consider voting Lib Dem]Absolutely, even if I do not like them either. "

Ashley Sutton, a creative writing student, is an undecided voter. "I do not know [who I’m voting for]. I know a little bit about all the holidays, but I try not to let other people's opinions influence me, because it's important to get what I want and what I'm passionate about, "he says. she. "It was important to come here to get a better idea of ​​who to go with and what MPs looked like, how they acted and how they acted."

However, convincing students like Sutton to vote for Lib Dem is just one of the challenges of continuing the student vote. In 2017, only 40 to 50% of 18-25 year olds voted despite their eligibility. Many students from the University of Gloucestershire will choose to vote in their home riding rather than in their hourly address. In addition, the university does not have a political society, department or course, which means that the political commitment here is not as high as that of the student districts. Half of its campus is spread across the neighboring constituency of Gloucester, with lines crossing even one of the university halls, making it difficult to know where to vote.

Obviously, any parliamentary candidate in Cheltenham has a lot of work to do.


The day before the clashes, I join Max Wilkinson with a group of Solicitors Lib Dem. Some young people from the area have been concocted for my benefit, but there are no Gloucestershire University students here. As we gather around the corner of a street, a grassy scent invades the air and the seekers laugh, asking Wilkinson to recommend recommendations – a reference to liberal drug policies from Lib Dems.

Max Wilkinson, Liberal candidate in Cheltenham.

After two hours knocking on doors in the St. Pauls neighborhood, we meet only two students, who seem a little terrified by the solicitors. Everyone tells us that they care about the environment and progressive issues, but they do not follow the politics or know who to vote for. I ask a woman how she voted in the last election and she answers that she does not remember it. Another tells one of the solicitors that he will normally vote for the Labor Party, but that he will vote for Lib Dem this time to prevent the Conservative candidate from entering. After two hours of walking in the pouring rain, we call it a day.

Then I mate with Wilkinson over a beer to talk about how one draws on the student population. Wilkinson worked as a journalist in a local newspaper in Weston-super-Mare, then in Cheltenham, before becoming a Lib Dem advisor in 2014.

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

"Liberal Democrats have a very strong mental health offer," Wilkinsons tells me. "We face a mental health crisis on university campuses, we have a strong environmental offer, and few students are passionate about Brexit. the student population. "

And what about the great betrayal of the 2010 coalition government, when the Liberal Democrats kept their election promises and tuition rose to £ 9,000 a year?

"You hear it from time to time," says Wilkinson. "Most of the time, when you hear about this issue, it is the parents of students, rather than the students themselves, who hear it. I think everyone recognizes that breaking the promise was a mistake, but it's really not a problem that tends to arise more. "

Wilkinson during the jostling.

Wilkinson's biggest selling point, however, is not how amazing it would be as a MP, nor how good the Dems Lib are, but whether he would be able to overthrow a Tory: " In a place like Cheltenham, it is recognized that it will go. to be Lib Dem or Tory, and people will vote for Lib Dem because they do not want Tories, "he says. "This election is about how we deal with the issue of climate change, how we are managing our relationship with the EU in the future and the NHS. For young people, housing is still a huge problem. apart from tuition fees. But I accept that an error has been made. "

Back in the debate, Wilkinson managed to give him "blows" or rather soft brushes. His mention of mental health policy is very much to the students, as is a final point on proportional representation, when he says he regrets the need to vote tactically.

Otherwise, it is Penny, the articulated female candidate who gets the most applause. This does not seem to bother Chalk too much, the Conservative candidate. During the debate, he congratulates Penny several times, saying that he will one day think "to be part of the government". Maybe Chalk is nice, or maybe he is aware that dividing the vote between Liberal and Labor Democrats will only benefit the Conservatives. In the absence of major dramas, the debate ends and candidates flock to the crowd to talk to students.

More than 250 students, staff and members of the public from the University of Gloucestershire have joined the public.

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

I'm talking with Penny, the young Labor candidate, as he comes out of the scene. Is he worried about dividing the vote? "I do not really see that the vote is divided," he said. "The Labor Party has very clear differences with Liberal Democrats in various policy areas. In addition, there is no guarantee that the Liberal Democrats will not support a Conservative government as they did in 2010. The only way, therefore, to ensure that there will be no government Conservative on December 13, is to vote for the Labor Party. "

He also noted that in the case of a suspended parliament, "the demonstration of a moral authority to govern will be of vital importance".

"If we achieve better results than in the past, as I suppose, it is possible, we will have tangible evidence of support for our transformative vision of Britain and our legitimate position as a neighbor." government."

With so many factors influencing student voting here in Cheltenham, it is difficult to predict the outcome on December 13th. I find Sutton, the undecided voter, in the crowd right after the end of the debate. I ask her if she is closer to knowing who to vote for now.

She passes near me. "Ugh, that makes me even more annoyed by politics," she says. "I do not even want to talk about it. Is my nut in it?

Guess it's a no then?


Before the general elections of 2019, VICE UK went to marginal neighborhoods frequented by a large student population to meet its inhabitants and find out what is most important to them. Read more of our Swing Party series here.