A very critical countdown

The views of first-time voters in Loughborough illustrate the extent to which traditional voting patterns and party boundaries have blurred. You can no longer be sure that someone who says they will vote Labour necessarily believes that that party has the best leader, or that the intending Tory voter believes defence is more important than the environment.

For example, the 35 Burleigh College sixth-formers were asked on The TES questionnaire to imagine they lived in the Tatton constituency and to say whether they would vote for Tory Neil Hamilton or the anti-sleaze candidate Martin Bell. Of the large majority who voted for Mr Bell, four were Conservative supporters, whereas three Labour sympathisers chose Mr Hamilton.

Of the 35 who returned questionnaires, 15 said they would be voting Labour, nine Conservative, three Liberal and eight were undecided. Almost all said they would definitely use their vote; another four will "probably" vote. All the undecideds were intending to use their vote.

Employment and joblessness was seen as the most important issue at this election (31 people), followed by education (28), tax (14), Europe (9), and crime (8). The sort of issues that might have been expected to interest young people - the environment, poverty, and animal rights - received three, two and one vote respectively. Sleaze was seen as important by just three people. Public transport and the proliferation of private cars dominated discussion in the focus group, but this was not repeated in questionnaire returns.

Asked which party leader would make the best prime minister, Major and Blair were neck and neck with 13 votes each, and Paddy Ashdown trailed with eight. When asked which leader they would trust most, Major and Ashdown were equal on 12 votes each, and Tony Blair had fallen behind, earning just 10 votes.

The Lib Dems were the party seen as the most trustworthy (14 votes). Labour got 10 and the Tories nine. Several people left this question ominously blank or wrote "none".

On education policy, Labour and the Lib Dems were about equal, with the Tories scraping a miserable three votes (suggesting that many Tory voters had little faith in Tory policy). Respondents mentioned Labour's pledge to reduce class size and reform student loans, and the Lib Dems' upfront policy on tax as reasons for backing them. Labour was way ahead on best policies for 18 to 25s, and was seen as the party that made the most effort to find out what young people think. Eight pupils thought none of the parties had made an effort. Do young people care who wins? Twenty-six out of 35 did; of those who said it didn't matter, six were intending to vote Labour, two Conservative, and only one was still undecided.

Most respondents could name the Labour candidate for Loughborough (Andy Reed), but very few could name the Tory (Kenneth Andrew), though this is unsurprising since the sitting Tory MP, Stephen Dorrell has moved to the safer Tory seat of Charnwood. There was widespread belief that actress Diana Rigg is standing for the Liberal Democrats in this constituency; in fact the candidate's name is Diana Brass. None of the candidates had visited Burleigh College.

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