The constituency of silence

April 25, 1997

STUDENTS comprise between 15 and 20 per cent of the electorate in Conservative held Leeds North West. The constituency includes Headingley, famed for its rugby league and cricket grounds, where student halls abut smart houses which have been largely converted to student flats following the middle class exodus north to the rural outskirts of the city.

As a result Leeds NW probably contains as high a proportion of students as any constituency in the country. Much of the campaign material is directed at students in the hope of overcoming their lack of interest in party politics.

But a recent poll by the Leeds students' newspaper revealed that just 45 per cent intended to vote.

Liberal Democrat candidate Barbara Pearce admits to encountering some lack of interest. A former employee of Leeds University, Mrs Pearce is director of CCDU Training and Consultancy, a university spin-off company. Are students disillusioned? "They are with New Labour," she says. "We're the challenger in Leeds NW."

The Liberal Democrats came second in 1992 with .9 per cent of the vote but Labour was nail-bitingly close with .3 per cent.

Labour needs a swing of 8 per cent to take the seat and candidate Harold Best clearly has his sights set on old style, left-leaning students to carry him to victory. "There are over 13,000 students in the constituency and yet we still have a Tory MP," he says. "Students will decide the general election here if they unite behind Labour."

Keith Hampson, the Conservative MP defending a majority of 7,671, goes further than the Liberal Democrats in his assessment of student apathy. "I am very conscious that there is considerable cynicism among young people regarding politics," he says.

In an bid to persuade them to return him to Westminster Dr Hampson, a former history lecturer at Edinburgh University, points to schemes to improve student digs and tackle crime.

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