As the political temperature climbs, Josephine Gardiner reports on the parties' efforts to secure the youth vote. The youth vote in the marginal constituency of Loughborough is up for grabs. First-time voters interviewed and surveyed by The TES at the town's biggest and most socially representative school, show a slight, grudging preference for the Labour Party, but the number of still undecided virgin voters suggests Labour candidate, Andy Reed, would be unwise to take anything for granted.
Boundary changes have made Loughborough a barometer constituency. Labour only needs a 3.5 per cent swing to win it, and it is number 45 on the party's list of targets. The Tory MP, health minister Stephen Dorrell, has left his shaky seat and taken refuge in the bluer air of neighbouring Charnwood.
The views of first-time voters could be decisive here. Loughborough has a large university and under-29s form the second largest population group in the area. At Burleigh College, a focus-group discussion with seven sixth-formers revealed that only one person - a Labour supporter - had decided which party to vote for, though all who were old enough were determined to use their vote, as were the 35 surveyed by questionnaire.
These young people confound the apathetic stereotype of young voters. They have strong and well-informed views on every issue from the European currency to school discipline. They show a keen interest in politics and current affairs, though no party has really secured their loyalty. All of them were irritated by the "massive generalisations" politicians and journalists make about young people. Linda Rudkin, head of the sixth form, said the group was typical of the upper sixth.
The issues they thought important did not necessarily fit in with the general idea about what young people are interested in - animal rights were not discussed, and instead of nebulous comments about "the environment", there was a sharply-focused call for urgent, radical measures to curtail car use and car pollution. Cars, the state of public transport, and anxiety about the European currency were the issues that raised most passion.
The group saw the Labour Party as being more united than others, and thought the Tories split over Europe and sleaze. But they were not convinced that New Labour would be able to keep old Labour at bay once the election was over. "I'm worried that Labour divisions will show up once they are in power," said Mark Powell.
Malink Magombo was convinced the unions would "demand a payback of some kind". There was general dissatisfaction with the quality of debate between the parties as reported by the media, and frustration with politicians' reluctance to give straightforward answers. Labour will be disappointed to hear that sleaze is seen as a distraction from the real issues.
Of the party leaders, Paddy Ashdown came out ahead on honesty. He was seen as the only one to "avoid the backbiting", and a bit like "the nice man next door". "He has sensible policies, but he can afford that," said Mark. But Ross Fletcher thought the Liberal Democrat leader was "too weak to hold power for five years".
John Major was viewed as the best of the Tories, being able to "relate to ordinary people", and seeming "genuine" and "a good orator" who was "ill-served by his own party". Amy Rose, however, thought he lacked charisma and had failed to keep the party together. The Conservatives as a party were seen much less favourably than their leader.
Poor Tony Blair. The kindest comment from this group was that the Labour leader "seemed a youthful character". According to Malink, "whenever you see him there's always someone in the background telling him what to do; he's the face in front of other people's thoughts". Jo Connell, the convinced Labour voter, complained that Blair "finds out what people want and then changes his views". Other comments included "shallow" and "smarmy", and Blair's visit to the BritPop awards was interpreted as pandering to the fashionable vote.
Labour MPs, John Prescott and Robin Cook, were praised, and the group said they wanted to hear more from other key figures in the parties and see less of the Major-Blair battle. "The way they argue seems petty and childish; they degrade themselves," said Amy Rose. "But it's very difficult, you are not taught anything about politics, and then all of a sudden you are 18 and the only information you get is reports of the rivalry between Blair and Major. " Everyone in the group lamented the absence of political or civics education.
Asked to name key issues for this election, vehicle use was an important factor. Ross Fletcher said: "Somebody must do something about the problem with cars, which is only going to get worse. We need someone who is prepared to do something radical - putting Pounds 20 on car tax is not enough." This feeling was endorsed by the entire group. Malink Magombo wanted to see see car use restricted to three days a week and car users contrib-uting to research in alternative energy sources.
The group wanted cheaper and more extensive public transport and immediate re-nationalisation of the railways. Ross said: "It's got to be one unit. " Amy, whose father was formerly employed by British Rail and now works for Railtrack, talked about the "money-grabbing companies who moved in on the railways". She said: "It's as if everything has got to be owned by someone." The group were worried by what they saw as Labour's equivocation over privatisation, particularly air-traffic control.
Six of the seven said they were "very worried about Europe", and everyone wanted a referendum. But nobody was considering voting for the Referendum Party, as "they haven't any other policies". The source of this anxiety about Europe is the sense that Britain could lose control over the economy and be forced to pay for other peoples' problems, such as the rising unemployment in Germany.
One said: "We could be paying taxes to support people in other countries, subsidising them when we can't afford things ourselves". Another added: "They are people in Brussels making decisions about what happens here." Jo approved of the Social Chapter, but Malink said: "It would not work here, we're used to lower working standards than Europe. That's why companies invest here."
Most of the group had some experience of the effects of unemployment and all condemned the poverty trap. Veena Patel's father had been out of work for 10 years, and Jo commented on the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots, saying "many of my parents' friends are being forced to take cleaning jobs which pay less than benefit under the Job Seekers rules". But Amy was irritated by the work-shy: "I have a friend on benefit doing absolutely nothing while others work really hard. Now she's complaining because they're making her do a course."
Ross accused the Tories of rigging unemployment figures and concluded it was "very difficult for the Government to get the balance right between slackers and people who genuinely can't find work".
The group wanted to see tough controls on disruptive pupils, a problem they thought had worsened since they began secondary school. But there was no support for increasing selection; and streaming was acceptable only if children could move between levels. Testing of primary school children was pointless, they decided.
Opinion on "bad teachers" was divided between those who wanted more inspection and better training and those who thought, like Ross, that "constant outside monitoring undermines confidence".
The group were all destined for university but were reluctant to discuss the issue of student loans in case they seemed "selfish". The Liberal Democrats' plans for income-related, long-term payback of grants and fees was preferred, as according to Ross, "decent jobs can't be guaranteed by a degree".
Mark said he'd like to become a politician, though he was not sure which party he would join. He said he would like to see a revival of "national pride". He added: "Politicians are too quick to put the country down, and people still have a fear of patriotism because of the British Empire and imperialism. "
First-time voters' manifesto:
* Referendum on Europe * Re-nationalise railways * Radical measures to restrict car use and car pollution * Investment in public transport * Proportional representation * Legalise soft drugs * Preserve NHS (cut junior doctors' hours, restore free dental and eye checks, freeze prescription charges)
* Ban on hunting * Crack down on commercial greed and fat-cats * New measures to prevent juvenile criminals escaping retribution * Better re-training for offenders * Devolved power for Scotland and Wales * Better deal for disabled groups * Elected House of Lords * Campaign to restore sense of national identity and pride.