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Fighting for the hot seat

As May 1 draws closer, the tension is almost tangible in Scotland's tightest seat. It's a four-horse race in Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber, following a nail-biting contest in 1992, in which the Liberal Democrats won by only 428 votes. Judy Mackie talks to four 18-year-old activists about the importance of this, their first general election.

Andrew Johnston

Andrew Johnston

(son of retiring Liberal Democrat MP Sir Russell Johnston), first-year motor vehicle engineering student at Inverness College. Former pupil of Millburn Academy, Inverness. Liberal Democrat supporter "Although my father's political involvement has partly influenced my interest in the Liberal Democrats, I haven't been brainwashed. He doesn't talk about politics all the time - he's just like any ordinary father.

I've made a point of looking into the policies of all the parties and I still feel that those of the Lib Dems make the most sense. I wouldn't consider voting any other way - the others don't appeal to me at all. I think that half the battle is how the parties present themselves. It doesn't matter how good your views are; if you express them the wrong way, it switches people off.

I don't think I was given much information about politics at school. We maybe did something in first and second year, but I'm not sure. Maths and physics were the subjects that interested me most. There was a debate around the time of the last General Election, but I didn't participate. I don't actually think it's a good idea to go into too much depth about politics at school. It would be interesting only to the select few and the rest would find it boring. It would probably put them off the subject altogether.

I can't say there's much political enthusiasm at college either. Even the election of the college president was low-key and the majority of students abstained from voting.

I think it's important to use your vote and I'll definitely be voting in this election. Two weeks ago, I received a letter from the new candidate, Stephen Gallagher, and I agreed with his views on most issues. He said he wanted feedback from first-time voters, which I thought was a good thing.

I also got letters from the Labour and Tory parties, but the Tory one made a bit of a gaff. It had my date of birth on it, and was obviously targeting first-time voters, but it said something about remembering what life was like under the last Labour government - and that was way, way before my time!

I helped out during the last General Election by encouraging people to come to the polling stations, but I'm not sure if I'll get involved this time. I would never consider standing for election in the future. I'm not really the type at all."

Leanne Brown

Leanne Brown (18), first year art and design student at Inverness College. Former pupil of Millburn Academy, Inverness. SNP supporter "My parents and grandparents have been involved with the SNP for many years, so I've always been aware of what's going on in the party. They make their feelings known, but I've never been put under pressure to think what they think. I like to make up my own mind about things. I would never vote Tory or Labour, but I was interested for a while in the policies of the Liberal Democrats. Now I'm committed to the SNP. I've been to the Scottish Grand Committee and various meetings, and then last year I went to the party's annual conference, in Inverness.

My political awareness definitely didn't come from school. I didn't take modern studies and we didn't cover modern politics in history, so it wasn't part of the curriculum for me. I wasn't interested in getting too involved outside the classroom either, as I wanted to concentrate on passing my exams. But I did keep up with what was going on, by reading newspapers and watching the TV news. Most of the people I knew at school were apathetic about politics.

At college, I'm doing a modern studies module and I'm really enjoying it, particularly the political discussions. I feel I understand much more about politics now. Unfortunately, the class is held for only two hours a week. I'm now seriously considering going on to study history and politics at university.

What I like about the SNP is that they want to do away with student loans and bring back benefits for 16 to 17-year-olds. Alex Salmond, unlike Tony Blair and John Major, with all their bickering, is genuine and is not trying to prove anything. I think Fergus Ewing, our local candidate, is a very dedicated man who cares about people. I know, through my grandmother, that he does a lot of work for charity.

I'm very pleased to have the vote, but I know a lot of people my age who are not that bothered about voting. Looking back, I do think schools should do more to make young people more aware about the importance of understanding politics. It lies in their interests - they make the future.

It would probably be best to start analysing politics at fifth year level, as most younger pupils wouldn't be interested. It's only when you leave school that you truly appreciate how politics affect you personally."

Mandy Ingram

Mandy Ingram, first-year student studying English, history and psychology at the University of Aberdeen. Former pupil of Inverness Royal Academy. Labour supporter "I would describe myself as a militant Labour supporter and I'm very involved in politics at university - I signed up for the Young Labour Students during Freshers Week. My friends thought I was mad, but since then I've persuaded one or two of them to read the literature and think about it.

My dad is a Labour Party activist in Inverness and I suppose I became interested in politics because of him. But I wanted to make up my own mind and so I made sure I read up on all the policies of the other parties.

I enjoyed learning about politics at school, and how the different parties came about, but the history lessons weren't entirely unbiased, as our teacher was obviously pro-SNP. At that time, I hadn't made up my mind which party to support, but like many of my friends I was strongly anti-Tory.

I think much more can be done at school to prepare youngsters for political involvement. I believe the subject should be taught from the later primary levels up, so that everyone receives a good grounding rather than having to rely on their parents or the media for information.

While I was making my mind up about who to support, I found I was quite drawn to the Liberal Democrats, but then Labour appealed to me more. My uncle is involved in the SNP in Dundee and gave me lots of information, but because I don't approve of Scottish independence, that party wasn't an option.

I think Labour's policies for students are excellent. Cutting class sizes is a good idea - I know from experience how awful it is to be part of a huge class. I also think they have come up with the best solution to the grants issue with the one-off maintenance payment, which you pay back over time. I don't think the SNP idea of going back to the old grants system is viable - it would cost too much.

I'm really looking forward to the General Election. Things are going to be very tense in Inverness on the big day."

Thomas Walsh

Thomas Walsh, second-year law and economics student at the University of Edinburgh. Former pupil of Millburn Academy, Inverness. Scottish Conservative supporter "I've always been interested in politics, and my mother is very active in the Scottish Conservative Party, but it was modern studies at school which made me really think about the subject. We learned what was happening in our own and other countries and I enjoyed the discussions very much. Our school had a mock General Election the last time round, and I voted, but didn't get involved in the hustings.

What appeals to me most about the Conservatives is their economic policy, but I also think their stance on Europe is very important. Personally, I'm a Euro-sceptic. I have no problems at all with their policy on student loans.

It's quite exciting having the vote and I'll use it, but I'm not hugely interested in getting involved in the pre-election activities. Since I've been home on holiday, I've been roped in to stuffing envelopes for Mary Scanlon, but if I can get out of it, I will.

Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber is a very important seat and I'm interested to see who will get in. I don't think the Liberal Democrats will win again, as it was a personality vote last time. The SNP is quite strong, but I think it will swing either to the Conservatives or Labour.

New Labour has adopted Conservative policies to get elected, and if they got in things would change drastically. The more left-wing members are quiet just now, because they've been told to toe the line by Tony Blair. But they won't do that under a Labour government. What worries me most about Labour getting in is that they will make irreversible changes which will have a terrible effect on the country's economy.

All the sleaze in politics at the moment really annoys and disappoints me, as it takes the focus away from the real issues. You'd think that 320 or so grown men and women (Conservative MPs) in the public eye would be able to keep control of themselves, but they're obviously not capable of doing that. "

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