Foster faces tactical legacy

April 25, 1997

CAMPAIGN stickers for the Liberal Democrat candidate in Bath proclaim "Carry on Don". The problem is that Don Foster, the MP and party education spokesman, may not be allowed to carry on.

His constituency, notoriously fickle and famous for having dumped former Conservative chairman Chris Patten in 1992, could easily choose any one of the main candidates this time.

Mr Foster admits his 3,768 majority is vulnerable. But he cannot be sure who is his main threat.

The Liberal Democrats hope the tactical voting card will come up trumps for them again. Last time, the prize of Mr Patten's scalp was enough to persuade thousands of Labour-inclined voters to back Mr Foster. But Labour's base was decimated, leaving it a poor third at 4,102 behind the Tories at 21,950.

Mr Foster knows that with Labour so far ahead in the polls, there is a danger Bath's Labour supporters will vote from the heart. This could mean almost an accidental win for the Conservative, accountant Alison McNair. She may be able to divide and rule.

The Tories are hoping boundary changes, which almost doubled the geographical size of the constituency by taking in surrounding suburbs and villages, have also improved their prospects. They are doing their best to ignore Bristol University voting analyst Gordon Reece, whose conclusion that "the Tories winning Bath is the least likely outcome" features prominently on Labour leaflets.

Labour candidate Tim Bush claims New Labour is now more in tune with the constituency. If both Tories and former tactical voters swing to Labour he could win. Mr Foster's high national profile as Liberal Democrat education spokesman is turning out to be his Achilles heel, Mr Bush claims. "Local people are fed up with Don Foster talking about education, and not much else," he said.

But Mr Foster makes the most of his academic credentials. He was a lecturer in the school of education at Bristol University for ten years, and takes pride in an honorary fellowship awarded to him by Bath College of Higher Education for "services to education".

He is hoping his fame will help him win the votes of over 10,000 students in Bath. But he has no doubts, nor do his opponents, that further and higher education are virtually non-issues in the election.

"I have come across very few people who say to me they will vote Liberal Democrat because of tertiary education issues. Even academics do not seem to see these as key factors in the election," he said.

Staff and students at Bath University seem to agree. Lucia Adams, a modern languages and European studies student, felt the national battle for power had left little room for debate over education, even at a local level. "The whole thing is burdened with soundbites and useless information," she said.

One lecturer thought it was inevitable higher education would be ignored due to the "shameful" way the Dearing inquiry's conclusions had been timed for after the election.

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