Optimists meet apathy on trail

June 1, 2001

THES reporters talk to four academics who are candidates in the general election.

Robert Collinson

Law lecturer Robert Collinson believes he is on track to reverse the thumping 18 per cent swing from Conservative to Labour in the Crosby constituency at the last general election, writes Alan Thomson.

Mr Collinson, a senior lecturer at the College of Law, in Chester, is the Conservative candidate who aims to unseat Labour's Claire Curtis-Thomas in the Lancashire constituency of Crosby. Ms Curtis-Thomas achieved a remarkable victory over Tory MP Malcolm Thornton in 1997, with one of the biggest swings in the country.

The Conservative share of the vote slumped from 48 per cent to 34 as Labour's share rose to 51 per cent. Yet despite the huge swing, Ms Curtis-Thomas enjoys a less than commanding 7,182 majority.

Mr Collinson, who gained an LLB from Lancaster University before doing a masters at Balliol College, Oxford, and then sitting legal practice exams at the College of Law, believes the electorate is more volatile this time round.

He said: "A 7,000 majority looks fairly sizeable. But there was an 18 per cent swing and I see an enormous opportunity for a swing back to Conservative. I am very optimistic indeed.

"I do feel that this is a most unusual election in a way because I feel that there are unprecedented levels of apathy among voters and disappointment with politicians in general. The whole situation is more volatile than before."

Crosby is a fairly affluent constituency and a large proportion of its young people go to university. Tuition fees and the scale of graduate debt are real issues for many electors.

Mr Collison said: "There is a strong interest in education in Crosby and I have talked to a number of students and parents who are expressing concerns about fees, the potential for top-up fees and about debt."

He supports his party's proposal to endow universities as a way of freeing them from state control. He has a lawyer's informed conviction that a future Conservative government could prevent independent, endowed institutions from charging top-up fees. This is because, despite endowments conferring greater independence, universities will stay part of a "legislative framework" for higher education.

He says he cannot see any basis for legal challenges by endowed universities.

Mr Collinson refused to be drawn on Mr Hague's chances of remaining party leader should the Conservatives fail to reduce Labour's majority.

But, politicised by Margaret Thatcher's radical Conservatism, he believes there are few significant policy differences between the Conservatives and Labour in key areas such as education and health.

He believes that over time, however, the electorate will change their ideas and radical policies will follow.

Antony Hook

As if running for Parliament was not hard enough, the country's youngest candidate, 21-year-old Antony Hook, is also sitting finals.

Mr Hook, who is completing a history degree at University College London, is contesting Dover for the Liberal Democrats.

It is highly unlikely that Mr Hook will win the seat for his party, which is in third place after the Tories, and Labour, which has a healthy 11,739 majority.

Over the past few weeks the former Dover Boys Grammar School pupil has divided his time between brushing up for his finals and, during the holidays, his political work. He spent his Easter break in Dover, pounding the streets and knocking on doors.

"I am sure we can increase our share of the vote. A lot of people are dissatisfied and disappointed with Labour and the Tories are just too right wing," he said.

Mr Hook's youth should give him one important edge during the campaign: appeal to younger voters. But he will have to work hard for such votes.

"One of my aims is to try to impress on voters of my generation that they should vote. The turnout among people in their 20s is appalling and I am honestly quite afraid for the future of democracy.

"I think the blame for apathy rests squarely on the shoulders of politicians. The style we tend to get looks to voters like an empty marketing exercise with politicians fighting among themselves. I think that just turns off a lot of younger people."

His experience as a student impressed on Mr Hook, who is vice-chair of Liberal Democrat Youth and Students, the need to reform student funding. Here he may strike a chord with many of Dover's younger generation.

"I reckon I'll leave university this year owing between £10,000 and £12,000. It was when I went to university that I really got involved in politics because the reality, regardless of all the government spin, is that since grants were scrapped it has meant that your ability to go to university depends on whether you can or are willing to afford thousands of pounds of debt."

If Mr Hook fails to win the seat, he will most probably take up the place he has been offered at City University to do a postgraduate diploma in law. His aim is to train for the Bar.

Royce Longton

It is just as well Reading has had a university since 1926 because Royce Longton, lecturer and Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for neighbouring Wokingham, has strong views on post-1992 institutions.

Dr Longton, head of botany at Reading, hopes to win the votes of his colleagues, students and parents living in the Wokingham constituency - something he may have found difficult if Reading was a new university.

He said: "I want everyone who really wants a university education to have the chance of having one. But I feel that many new universities are not universities in the traditional sense.

"I am not sure we should be selling a university education merely as a good way to a high-paid job. What we need is high-quality vocational training. This is still higher education but not necessarily university education."

On the face of it, Dr Longton, a Birmingham University graduate, faces an uphill struggle against sitting candidate and senior Tory John Redwood, who has held the seat since 1987. Wokingham is also one of the wealthiest areas in the country with more than half of the population living in detached houses.

But Dr Longton, who lost to Mr Redwood in 1997, is optimistic. He cut Redwood's majority from 19,117 to 9,365. Then, in May 2000, the Liberal Democrats wrested overall control of the district council from the Conservatives. Dr Longton was chairman of West Berkshire Council from 1998 to 2000. Labour is traditionally third placed in Wokingham.

The Liberal Democrats stress the need to improve lecturers' salaries, student finances and higher education funding, something they feel Tony Blair's new Labour has failed to deliver.

Reading University has more than 12,000 students and 5,000 staff, some of whom live in the Wokingham constituency, which is about eight miles from the university. Added to this, as a largely middle-class constituency, many Wokingham voters will have children at university and will be paying the full £1,050 annual tuition fee. Dr Longton said: "Students should be studying hard and playing hard to gain the most out of university. They should not be studying hard and then working hard just to make ends meet.

"The number of staff in our department has halved over the past 15 years. We are spending less time on what we should be doing, which is high-quality research. Work was a pleasure and that was marvellous. But that was academic life as it was. That is not so true now."

Harash Narang

One of the scientists whose work on BSE was passed over by the previous Conservative government has decided to challenge agriculture minister Nick Brown in protest at Labour policy on foot and mouth and student funding, writes Caroline Davis .

Harash Narang, a former microbiologist at the Public Health Laboratory who developed a urine test for BSE, will contest the Newcastle East and Wallsend seat on June 7.

Dr Narang is bitter about events during the last Conservative administration. The Philips report into the BSE crisis investigated his allegations that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had ignored his requests for funding for fear of exposing the true extent of BSE.

Although Philips concluded that Maff scientists did give Dr Narang's work fair consideration, Dr Narang claims that his work linking BSE to vCJD subsequently lost him his job in 1994.

Dr Narang has since carried on his research funded by local businessman and former butcher Ken Bell, the man who is also funding his election campaign.

He said his decision to stand as an independent candidate for Parliament was prompted by "people pressure". Dr Narang admits he sees himself as a Martin Bell figure and thinks he is in with a real chance of beating Mr Brown. "I will have a referendum against the whole of government policy. I can do Nick Brown's job, but he can't do mine. " If elected, he will push to scrap tuition fees. He said: "Higher education should be free to those who are able to benefit from it. "

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