Will top-up fees cost the education secretary his Norwich seat? Paul Hill reports.
The appeal of grants and bursaries to working-class families will be put to the test in Charles Clarke's Norwich South constituency at the next election amid warnings that top-up fees may have already cost him middle-class votes.
Although the education secretary is "relaxed" about his prospects and sits on an 8,816 majority, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats say they will target Norwich South as a "key marginal".
The students' union at the University of East Anglia is also considering staging an "anti-Clarke" voter-registration campaign, with the aim of getting up to 3,000 students on the electoral roll.
Even senior Labour Party figures in Norwich concede that the combination of top-up fees and Iraq could cost Mr Clarke votes in the more affluent wards of his constituency. But they predict that Mr Clarke's vote will hold firm in the constituency's council estates, where concerns about top-up fees have failed to register on the doorstep.
Labour has held Norwich South for the past 40 years, barring the Tories'
single-term success in 1983. Mr Clarke saw his 1997 majority fall by 5,400 votes at the last election to a nonetheless healthy margin of 8,816.
The second-placed Conservatives still need a 10.4 per cent swing to take the seat. Yet the Liberal Democrats - who were beaten into third place in 1997 and 2001 - could mount the strongest challenge.
In 2002, the Liberal Democrats ended Labour's 70-year monopoly at Norwich City Hall and made further gains at the local elections in 2003, securing still more council seats across the Norwich South constituency.
By contrast, the Tories hold only one of the council's 48 seats.
Mr Clarke's Liberal Democrat challenger in Norwich South, teacher Andrew Aalders-Dunthorne, is already trying to capitalise on top-up fees - labelling it "Labour's poll tax on learning" in his latest campaign literature.
"We've sent out 50,000 leaflets across the constituency, and we're getting responses from across the city - not just from students but from parents and grandparents worried about top-up fees and student debt," he said.
Steve Morphew, leader of the city council's Labour group, agreed that fees could cost votes: "I can't imagine top-up fees not affecting the vote, but so will Iraq and lots of other things. What I can't say is that tuition fees will have a disproportionate affect."
He added: "At the last election, we suffered from people thinking we were spending too much time on the middle classes and not enough on the working classes."
The Conservatives have yet to select their candidate for the constituency, but Jeremy Savage, the party's area chairman for Norfolk and Suffolk, said the party would be treating it as a target seat.
"I've also canvassed a lot of Norwich South in the past, and you can't presume which way people are going to vote from the type of housing they live in," he said.
"A lot of the strongest Conservative support comes from the poorer estates and the voters may be a lot more mobile in who they support in the more affluent leafy areas."
Mr Clarke was given an indication of the strength of feeling on the University of East Anglia's campus last week when 111 academics and administration staff put their names to an open letter condemning fees as "neither sensible nor fair".
Rupert Read, philosophy lecturer at UEA, said that the signatories crossed the political spectrum. By contrast, he predicted that Ian Gibson, MP for the neighbouring Norwich North constituency, would benefit electorally because he vociferously opposed top-up fees.
He said: "I think every single Labour MP and any other MP who voted for the bill will face the same, but Clarke will face it worse than anyone else. At the next general election, I think that Ian Gibson will retain his seat - which used to be the marginal seat for Labour in Norwich - and Charles Clarke will be very hard-pressed."
But others at the university pointed out that the vast majority of the 460 academics had not signed the letter.
Clive Sellick, UEA's director of international programmes and senior lecturer in social work, said: "If Charles Clarke was worried about the next election, I think it would be less to do with academics than with the success of the Liberal Democrats locally."
Mr Clarke said he was relaxed about his prospects. "The reason that Norwich South has always been a Labour seat is that it has some very major elements of deprivation in the city and very low pay in some areas.
"As a result, the proposals we have will be of material advantage to some areas of the constituency. Norwich isn't often seen as the sort of place where that would be true, but it is.
"You also have a big higher education community, and this will mean more resources and better pay for people there. As for my mailbag, I've had the odd petition organised by the student union at UEA, but it's not the case that I'm getting besieged by letters from the academic community saying that we're not doing the right thing."
Mr Clarke added: "As far as the middle-class elements of the constituency are concerned, I think the abolition of the upfront fee is a significant attractor. So I'm extremely relaxed about the political consequences of my legislation, not just for Norwich South but for colleagues around the country."
But the first test of Mr Clarke's confidence may come later this year when the Norwich Labour Party tries to recover lost ground in the local elections - and test the appeal of the higher education bill on the doorstep.
A WARD OF MIXED MEANS
The wealth, education and aspirations of voters varies widely across Charles Clarke's Norwich South constituency, which ranges from leafy suburb to deprived council estate.
While 44 per cent of the residents of well-heeled Nelson ward are educated to degree level or higher, 41 per cent of people living on the Lakenham estate have no qualifications.
Some 79 per cent of homes in affluent Eaton on the fringes of the city are owner occupied and more than a third of householders in Bowthorpe are council tenants.
There were roughly 7,700 students aged 18 or over in full-time education living in the constituency at the last election, according to city council officials.
The University of East Anglia, Norwich School of Art and Design and Norwich City College - linked to Anglia Polytechnic University - all fall within the Norwich South boundary.
According to the 2001 census, 35 per cent of households in the city's university ward were occupied by students, while only 2 per cent were in the nearby New Costessey.
The government's index of social deprivation ranks the city as the second most deprived district in East Anglia and the 66th in England.