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Why Lib Dems' Foster fears an early Bath

The spin doctors may say education is the priority, but events may prove otherwise, discover TES writers.

The picturesque spa town of Bath is the scene of a fierce general election battle in which Don Foster, the Liberal Democrats' high-profile national education spokesman, is fighting for survival. "I'm not at all certain I will be the next MP for Bath," he admits.

Mr Foster, former teacher, lecturer and management consultant, faces the prospect of being squeezed out by the Tories in a reversal of his 1992 victory when he gained a 3,768 majority. The Liberal Democrat breakthrough, in line with the party's success throughout the South-west, was said to be largely the result of tactical voting by Labour supporters wanting rid of the Conservative party chairman, Chris Patten.

But the Liberal Democrat nightmare is that with the prospect of Tony Blair leading a newly-modernised party into government, Labour voters may return to their own fold. Add boundary changes which mean an estimated 4,000 more Tory voters in the constituency, and you have the recipe for a super-marginal white knuckle ride on the night of May 1.

Despite his evident popularity, a recent public backlash over education cuts cannot help Mr Foster. Almost as soon as it was formed last year, the new Bath and North East Somerset unitary authority, in which the Liberal Democrats are the largest party, provoked a furious campaign among teachers and parents over a package which included 4 per cent cuts in education.

Mr Foster, a former education committee chair on the old Avon county council, blames the row on poor public relations. Many Liberal Democrat-controlled councils have been forced to make cuts because of government policy, he says. But his party can redeem itself with its pledge to raise income tax to spend more on education.

"People are prepared to see taxes rise, but they want to know with absolute certainty what it's going to be spent on," he says.

Parents collecting their children at St Mary's Roman Catholic primary school in Weston, near Bath, seemed to agree. But, reflecting the problem the party may face throughout the country, few were prepared to vote accordingly.

"Education is one of the most important things for us, and it won't make much difference paying an extra penny in tax," said Catherine Sanderson. "But the Liberal Democrats aren't going to win the general election, so what's the point in voting for them?" Tory candidate Alison McNair, a chartered accountant, hopes to persuade voters that her party's policies have meant big improvements in education. She points to the success of the city's grant-maintained schools and claims credit for reducing the local council's education cuts package to 1 per cent.

But she maintains a tough line on spending, with talk of maximising resources and only being able to spend more on education if the economy grows.

Labour's Tim Bush hopes for the return of an estimated 12,000 tactical voters - a figure derided in other quarters - who left his party in a poor third place with only 4,102 votes in 1992.

And he also hopes to capitalise on the Lib Dems' local difficulties.

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