Beer and skittles beats the ballot box

April 25, 1997

AT ONE time, Plymouth probably had the closest thing to a command economy west of Berlin with one in three people making a living directly or indirectly from the defence industry. But with the end of the cold war, education is now the city's largest employer.

Plymouth University, Plymouth College of Further Education, the College of St Mark and St John and the College of Art and Design have about 40,000 students between them, a sixth of the city population.

Most of the institutions are in Plymouth Sutton constituency and about a third of the students live there too. Yet such potential electoral clout looks unlikely to materialise at the ballot box.

Tom Gabriel, president of the university's student union, said: "The seat could almost be won or lost on the student vote but how many will vote? If beer is cheap, the entertainment good and there is plenty of opportunity for sport, then the majority of students are quite happy. Unfortunately, that's the majority that won't vote."

Students often complain that the political parties ignore them. This is unsurprising since canvassing finds the electorate more worried about jobs - the dockyard workforce has declined from 13,500 to 3,500 in just over a decade - law and order and schools.

Sutton is nominally a marginal, requiring a 2 per cent swing to overturn the Conservatives' 1,060 projected majority. But the recent boundary change added two working-class wards to Sutton and many, including the Labour candidate Linda Gilroy, believe Labour's position is now far stronger. Mrs Gilroy believes the student vote is important but not crucial.

Conservative candidate Andrew Crisp is less than bullish about his chances, though he believes the record of the Labour-controlled city council gives him some hope.

The Liberal Democrat's Steve Melia is refreshingly candid. "There are some who think the Tories can win here," he said, "but that's absolute nonsense. Labour is clearly in front."

Sutton's students could make a difference if they do vote, which is unlikely if they agree with fisheries science student Steve Whale. "In a way I feel abandoned by the political system. I feel my views and my vote do not count for anything. I'm concentrating on finishing my course and getting a job, preferably in New Zealand," he said.

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