X marks the academic

April 30, 1999

With a week's campaigning left before the Scots and Welsh cast their national assembly votes, Alan Thomson asks academic candidates from the main parties why they want to quit their ivory towers for the dirty world of politics

Margaret Curran, lecturer in community education at Strathclyde University, is Labour candidate for the Scottish Parliament in Glasgow Baillieston The Baillieston constituency, on the eastern outskirts of Glasgow, is home to some of the bleakest housing estates in Europe. But Margaret Curran, favourite to win the seat on May 6, is relishing the challenge. "If I am serious about this community stuff then it has to be made real in a Scottish Parliament. Westminster has failed to address some important issues."

Curran's experience in community education, first in the Strathclyde regional council's social work department and then at Strathclyde University, has given her some ideas.

"I think there is too much emphasis on access to universities. There needs to be more resources put into local adult education," she says. "It is through this sort of learning that many people begin to rediscover their skills and self-worth."

Sandy Stronach, part-time engineering lecturer at Robert Gordon University, is Scottish National Party candidate for the Scottish Parliament in Gordon (Aberdeen) Veteran nationalist Sandy Stronach believes the SNP's time has come. If he is right then it will be good news for students, who can look forward to the scrapping of student tuition fees and the reinstatement of state grants north of the border.

"Free higher education has always been our policy. We would seek to reverse Labour policy. I don't think there can ever be too much higher education and our fear is that the additional cost (of tuition fees) could put people off," he says.

But Stronach may find his electoral hopes dashed in this largely rural, Liberal Democrat stronghold.

Phil Williams, professor of space physics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, is Plaid Cymru candidate for the Welsh Assembly in Blaenau Gwent As a physicist, Phil Williams is well aware of the laws that govern the universe. Is it possible that he has overlooked the immutable law that says Blaenau Gwent is and probably always will be a Labour seat?

Blaenau is one of the three safest Labour seats in Britain, with a 28,035 majority.

Williams is committed to addressing the area's economic problems. "It has the lowest average wage of any constituency in England and Wales and among the highest rates of unemployment. It really does deserve a better deal."

Regeneration is one of his top priorities. He believes Wales is well placed to lead the next high-tech revolution, but it irks him that Welsh universities, which teach 6 per cent of the total student body, receive just 4 per cent of research spending.

Gordon Millar, lecturer in business communications at Lucerne Business School, Switzerland, is prospective Conservative candidate for the Scottish Parliament in Falkirk West Edinburgh-born and Oxford educated, Gordon Millar toyed with politics as an undergraduate but put his political ambitions on hold to pursue an academic career that included a stint lecturing at Glasgow University. It is unlikely that a Conservative will be elected in a Labour stronghold, but he believes his efforts will make a difference.

Millar says: "I looked at Scotland from the vantage point of Switzerland and saw how much it needs a right of centre party. All the alternative parties are left of centre. They all support tax raising. I fear that this could drive business out of Scotland.

Millar believes Scotland has a bright future as a high-skills, high-tech economy in which higher education will play an important role.

Rob Humphries, lecturer in continuing adult education at the University of Wales, Swansea, is prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for the Welsh Assembly in Bridgend Rob Humphries's politics are the result of a marriage of academic study and an unorthodox career that began on the factory floor.

An historian by training, Humphries sees the Welsh Assembly as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the country to reach consensus on the strategies required to regenerate the Welsh economy. He stands little chance of winning the seat, which Labour holds with a 15,248 majority, but could win a place in the parliament from the proportional top-up list. Lifelong learning is high on his agenda.

Living proof of the power of lifelong learning, Humphries worked in a food-processing factory before opting for higher education. After attending Ruskin College, Oxford, he did his postgraduate research at the University of Wales, Cardiff. He joined Swansea seven years ago.

Mark Drakeford, lecturer in social policy at the University of Wales, Cardiff, is Labour candidate for the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff Central Mark Drakeford will miss academe but is determined to bring his expertise to bear in the new assembly in social policy.

Following a postgraduate qualification in social work at Exeter University, he worked for ten years as a probation officer before joining the University of Wales, Swansea. He moved to Cardiff in 1995. Political activity has shadowed his academic career - he was a councillor in South Wales from 1985 to 1993.

"My working life has been spent with families who live in some of the most deprived areas of the community. It was clear that the decisions that had the biggest impact on them were political. If you want to make a real difference then politics is where things happen," he says.

Wales is Labour territory but the Cardiff Central contest will be close. The seat was Conservative in the 1980s, switching to Labour in 1992. Labour MP Jon Owen Jones has a 7,923 majority, but both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are targeting the seat. "The Rhondda it isn't," Drakeford says.

Nick Bourne, professor of law and assistant principal at Swansea Institute, is prospective Conservative candidate for the Welsh Assembly in Brecon and Radnorshire Nick Bourne is in the less than enviable position of standing for election to the assembly he opposed in the referendum.

Yet curiously, having led the "No" campaign, he is now determined to win a seat to ensure there is a Conservative opposition in the new assembly.

"We need Conservatives on the assembly. There has to be a voice for rural Wales and someone to keep a check on what will be a costly project."

It is no surprise that Bourne is the Conservatives' first choice. He became politically active while doing his masters degree in Cambridge in the mid-1970s, having been inspired by Margaret Thatcher.

The Brecon and Radnorshire seat, the largest in England and Wales, is predominantly rural and is held by the Liberal Democrats with a 5,000 majority.

Iain Brown, senior lecturer in psychology at Glasgow University, is Liberal Democrat candidate for the Scottish Parliament in Glasgow, Anniesland Iain Brown has a tough task ahead of him: he is standing against Donald Dewar, Scottish Labour Party leader and possibly the future first minister for Scotland, in a seat that Dewar has held since 1978.

Brown is unfazed. "I know I've no hope of getting into the parliament but I do expect in the long run to have a greater input into the party."

As an expert in addiction, Brown's academic field is highly politicised, particularly in Scotland with its problems with drink and drug abuse. Unlike the Labour and Conservative parties which, he says, follow the United States's confrontational approach to drug and alcohol abuse, the Liberal Democrats are the only party that really embrace counselling and support for addicts.

How the voting system works

Scottish and Welsh voters in the national assembly elections on May 6 will be handed two ballot papers as they become the first people in Britain to vote in a proportional election system.

Called the additional member system (AMS), the first ballot paper will give voters a choice of candidates standing in their constituency. Constituency boundaries are the same as in the general election. Voters will put a cross next to their preferred candiate. It is essentially a first-past-the-post system.

The second ballot paper introduces the new proportional element. It requires voters to select their preferred party for a new regional constituency. In Scotland there are eight regional constituencies and each has seven seats. In Wales there are five regions and each has four top-up seats.

The system is designed to more accurately represent voters' choices. A party may win no constituency seats but attract a significant number of votes. A first-past-the-post system would not recognise such support. But under AMS, additional regional seats will be awarded to the parties in proportion to the number of votes they win in the regional ballot.

Candidates can stand solely in constituencies or appear only on regional lists or they can be on both. The Scottish Parliament will have 139 members made up of 73 constituency members and 56 from the regional lists. There will be 60 members in the Welsh Assembly - 40 constituency members and 20 from the regional lists.

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