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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 April, 2005, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
Student vote 'to swing 27 seats'
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News

Simon Hughes
Simon Hughes says the student vote is shifting to the Lib Dems
The student vote will be crucial to deciding 27 key seats in the general election, says the Liberal Democrat president Simon Hughes.

Promoting the party's plan to scrap tuition fees, Mr Hughes said student voters were swinging to the Lib Dems.

"There is increasing interest among students on issues such as fees and Iraq - and all the polls show we're their party of choice," he said.

The Tories also back scrapping fees - and Labour promises increased grants.

The Lib Dems, on a riverboat cruise down the River Thames, were selling the message that they are against the increase in tuition fees due to be implemented next year.

Campus vote

And Mr Hughes says that there are clear signs from the doorstep that this is playing well with students - who could determine who wins a number of key seats.

LIB DEM STUDENT TARGET SEATS
From Labour: Bristol West, Cardiff Central, Leeds North West, Cambridge, Manchester Gorton, Sheffield Central, Oxford East, Newcastle upon Tyne Central, Liverpool Riverside, Holborn and St Pancras, Oldham East and Saddleworth, Manchester, Withington, Islington South and Finsbury, Birmingham Yardley

From Conservatives: Surrey South West, Taunton, Orpington, Haltemprice and Howden, Eastbourne, Isle of Wight, Dorset West, Bournemouth East, Wells, Canterbury, Cities of London and Westminster, Bournemouth West, Westmorland and Lonsdale

"It's not just students who are raising the issue of tuition fees, it's their parents as well, because they're going to be picking up the bills. It's playing very strongly with people."

In the 27 student constituencies identified, Mr Hughes says that if the student vote comes over to the Liberal Democrats, they will take the seat.

Among the prominent MPs under threat from the student vote, according to the Lib Dems, are Home Secretary Charles Clarke in Norwich South and Shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin in Dorset West and Shadow Home Secretary David Davis in Haltemprice and Howden.

As education secretary, Mr Clarke pushed through the proposals to increase tuition fees, against a major backbench revolt by Labour MPs.

Mr Hughes says that as well as winning student votes with the promise of removing tuition fees, the party's stance on Iraq was also proving popular.

The Liberal Democrats propose replacing the revenue from tuition fees by introducing a higher rate of taxation for people earning over 100,000 per year.

Mr Hughes rejected the suggestion that students who would benefit from university should pay towards the cost of tuition - rather than making the taxpayer pick up the bill.

'Good investment'

Scrapping tuition fees would be a "good investment", he said. "If students go on to earn big money, they will pay it back through higher taxes."

Lib Dem poster
The Lib Dems are pressing the student vote in key target seats

And he promised the policy was "properly costed, properly funded and fairer for families".

The Lib Dems Treasury spokesperson, Vince Cable, said there were two key negative consequences of increasing tuition fees

"Access to university is going to be determined by people's ability to pay," he said. "And we're adding enormously to debt at a time when personal debt is becoming a very big issue, with the level of debt becoming ever more precarious."

The Lib Dems riverboat also carried a number of student supporters - who echoed their party's opposition to fees.

But in terms of what students are talking about during the election campaign, they say that one of the most basic debates being held is whether it's worth voting at all.

'Turn-off'

Thomas Paul, a philosophy student at Bristol University, said there had been an "overdose of cynicism" in this campaign, particularly in the arguments between Tony Blair and Michael Howard.

"A lot of people are turned off by the choreography - they don't know when people are speaking from the heart, it never seems to be spontaneous."

Amanda Crane, a theatre student at the University of Plymouth, said that students were more likely to engage in issues, such as Iraq, fees or the environment, rather than traditional party politics.

The Conservatives say they will scrap tuition fees - and replace the funding by charging a higher rate of interest on student loans.

The Labour party wants to increase tuition fees to a maximum of 3,000 per year, but for repayment to be deferred until after graduates are working and with a system of grants and bursaries for less well-off students.



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