Disgruntled teacher eyes up Clarke's Norwich seat

September 24, 2004

Phil Baty reports from the Lib Dems conference, where hopes are high

The Liberal Democrats are confident they can topple Charles Clarke, Education Secretary, at the next election, claiming one of Labour's biggest guns on a wave of opposition to his top-up fees policy.

In an interview with The Times Higher during the Lib Dem party conference in Bournemouth this week, the party's candidate for Mr Clarke's Norwich South seat, Andrew Aalders-Dunthorne, said that the Education Secretary's 8,816 majority was looking increasingly vulnerable.

"I stood against Mr Clarke in 1997 and in 2001 - every time he's contested this seat - and I have never really considered it would be a seat that would fall to us," he said.

"But there is a clear difference this time. We've upped our game and things are right this time round. It will need an 11 per cent swing, which is big. But it's not enormous."

Mr Aalders-Dunthorne said that higher education would be a key issue for voters in Norwich South, which is dominated by the University of East Anglia.

"Our policy to abolish tuition fees is one of our ten main pledges for the election, and locally we are going to make a huge issue of it," he said.

There is evidence that the Government's top-up fees policy has already cost Labour middle-class votes, and the high number of academics and students could add to the toll in the constituency.

And while Mr Clarke epitomises the controversial top-up fees policy, the Lib Dem candidate represents what many people believe is wrong with it.

Mr Aalders-Dunthorne, 34, has taught at a local middle-school for the past four years. He took a degree at Norwich City College and postgraduate training at UEA.

"I just escaped the worst of the Government's higher education policies, but I'm still paying off my student loan and fully recognise the huge weight on the shoulders of graduates.

"I'm raw into teaching and until recently have been earning below the level at which you pay the loan back, but now I lose £100-plus from my pay packet every month to pay the Government for the honour of teaching in a state school. It's the same for all graduates going into the public sector."

He also believes the Iraq War - and the Lib Dems' opposition to it - will be decisive in a constituency with large numbers of students.

"The Iraq thing has really surprised me," he said. "We have not got a huge Muslim population, like Birmingham, Leicester and Brent and we have no connection with the armed forces, but it is coming through loud and clear that Iraq really is a defining issue. For many, it is the straw that will break the camel's back."

And again, Mr Clarke's Cabinet position makes him more vulnerable to protest votes, Mr Aalders-Dunthorne believes.

"Mr Clarke is already dubbed a Labour representative to Norwich South, bringing the Government's edicts to us, rather than the Norwich South's MP taking our views to Government," he said.

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