Tories try to push their wares at fresher fairs

September 6, 2002

The Conservatives will kick off the new academic year with a campaign to capture the hearts and minds of a new generation of students.

The party is planning a high-profile presence at freshers' fairs as it redoubles its efforts to revamp its policies and recruit younger members. Shadow ministers and MPs are being encouraged to speak at informal political events at campuses in the first weeks of term.

Some 200 members of Conservative Future, the party's youth wing, will gather at Bath University this weekend for a conference at which the party will announce a new drive to re-engage young voters in politics.

The party is trying to generate new policy ideas that will strike a chord with millions of younger voters who shunned party politics, and the Conservatives in particular, during the 2001 general election.

It has already won a seat on the National Union of Students national executive. Richard Hilton, a part-time executive member, is the first Conservative member for almost a decade.

Mr Hilton said: "I think young people are disengaged from party politics, but they are still interested in issues. If you separate these two things and start talking about education funding, the quality of teaching, lecturer contact hours or student accommodation, you can get students to engage."

David Pugh, CF national organiser, said CF aimed to reach out to young people and feed back ideas to the national party in a bid to influence policy. He said that while the youth wing did not formulate policy, it had concerns across a range of issues. "For instance, we want to ensure that every young person has access to higher education. One of the things we and the party are looking at is, perhaps, some kind of grant support," he said.

Shadow education secretary Damian Green said the party was waiting for the publication of the government's proposed higher education white paper, due in November, before outlining its policy on student support and university funding. He stressed that the policies would not be imposed by the party leadership and that they would follow a process of consultation with young members and students.

The Conservatives' pursuit of younger members and new policies also led to the appointment this spring of Charles Hendry, MP for Wealden, as shadow minister for young people.

Mr Hendry, a former vice-chairman of the now defunct Scottish Federation of Conservative Students, said: "We recognised that we had done very poorly in terms of the youth vote in the last election. I don't think they thought what we were saying was relevant to their lives. I think there is an incredible openness and willingness in the party to listen to young people's views."

The Conservatives have created a database of more than 4,000 youth organisations. The party will mail the organisations regularly about political issues relating to young people as they arise in Parliament.

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