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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK
'Can Kennedy deliver on pledges?'
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News Online

While Charles Kennedy delivered an upbeat message to the party faithful at the end of the Liberal Democrat conference, a new audience watched with interest.

In the first of three party conference pieces, BBC News Online asked A-level students at an east London school what they thought of the Lib Dem leader - and his promises.

A level students at Sir John Cass Redcoat School
Charles Kennedy kept students' attention with tuition fee promises

As the next generation to make their way to the ballot box, the support of Britain's 16- to 18-year-olds could make all the difference to Mr Kennedy.

But the first hurdle he has to clear on the road to true "three party politics" may be making himself a household name.

"Is he the ginger one?" asks one of the students at Sir John Cass's Foundation and Redcoat Church of England Secondary School as they wait for Mr Kennedy's speech to begin.

Many are also surprised to find he is Scottish when he starts to speak.

Healthy scepticism

An hour later, most of the inner-city school's pupils have something positive to say about the Lib Dem leader's performance.

But their approval of his pledges to abolish tuition fees, help the elderly and fight racism is tempered with a healthy pinch of scepticism.

Seventeen-year-old Bryleen Nyandebu says: "All the stuff he's promised has been promised before.

He seems to know what he's talking about and how to do it but you don't know if he's going to deliver
Student Stephen Fordjour

"What's the guarantee that he is going to be able to carry it out when others haven't managed before him.

"Because he's saying it, it sounds very convincing - but where's the guarantee?"

Stephen Fordjour, 16, agrees: "He seems to know what he's talking about and how to do it but you don't know if he's going to deliver."

The only student in the group to admit that his parents, Labour supporters, talk politics at home, Stephen may have a head-start on his classmates.

But for a generation too often dismissed as apathetic or disinterested, the Stepney students are surprisingly switched-on.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy
Kennedy needs to convince young voters he can be trusted

Oona King, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, will be pleased to know her teenage constituents are able to name both her and her party.

And the students are only too aware that what Mr Kennedy and his rivals Tony Blair and Michael Howard have to say about university fees could have a real impact on their lives within a couple of years.

A ripple of applause greets Mr Kennedy's declaration stop tuition fees, axe top-up fees and make university education "affordable to all".

The students also like his promise to cut class sizes in schools and ensure all teachers are qualified in the subjects they teach.

He's only saying what we want to hear
Student Shamisa Robinson

And the Lib Dem leader's denouncement of racism and promise not to "pander to the lowest denominator" on asylum and immigration are well received.

Omar Deen, 16, says: "He seems to know what he's talking about - abolishing racism, each teacher should know their subject and have a qualification, abolishing tuition fees - because that affects me and every pupil in this school."

But 16-year-old Shamisa Robinson is more sceptical.

"Will what he said about doing more for the elderly and so on mean everyone will have to pay more taxes?" she asks.

Sir John Cass student Shamisa Robinson
Will Kennedy raise taxes to pay for the promises he has made?

"Looking out for students and other people is good. But he's only saying what we want to hear."

Leah Guthrie, 17, thinks the Lib Dems are the "most trustworthy" of the three main parties and argues Mr Kennedy has earned a shot at being prime minister.

"He has to be given the opportunity in order for us to find out if what he is saying is true in the first place," she says.

"If everyone has seen that Labour has not lived up to what it promised, then if we give him [Mr Kennedy] a try then we can see what he does.

'For whose benefit?'

"I think if everyone understands that it's not an instant change and we have to wait to see the result, it will be okay."

Seventeen-year-old Miriam Allachi is one of several to voice deep suspicion about the motives of politicians and their parties.

"At the end of the day, the powerful make rules to suit themselves," she says.

"They sound like they are going to help the local working class but in fact it ends up being for their benefit."

Mr Kennedy will have to go some way to convince the next voting generation he deserves their trust.

But it seems they are, at least, ready to listen to what he has to offer.


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