Election '97: Poll fever inspires new class

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The Independent Online
Young voters at Durham Johnston comprehensive school have a unique election opportunity many of their adult counterparts might welcome.

Among the four candidates standing in this Durham comprehensive mock- election are representatives of old and new Labour, battling it out with each other as well as with their Liberal Democrat and Tory rivals.

The divisions so carefully plastered over at national level broke apart at Durham Johnston when politics student Rosa Aers, 16, offered to stand for Labour only if she could stick to her Bennite principles and propose re-nationalisation, unilateral nuclear disarmament and a decent minimum wage.

"We felt we ought also to have a speaker who was more representative of new-Labour thinking," explains John Dunford, the head teacher, and 18-year-old Jonathan Rollason, a national debating champion, was roped in to fill the gap.

New Labour's man, with his outsize red rose, suit and tie and winning oratory, was clearly born for the hustings, but he is the only one of the four sixth formers living in a safe Labour seat who has no firm political convictions.

Tony Blair, who once lived within the school's catchment area, but who attended Durham Chorister prep school just across the city, could still win this waverer's general-election vote, but so might Paddy Ashdown.

Lib Dem candidate Rebecca Higgins, 17, is too young to vote for real but has supported her party "ever since I can remember". At the lectern in front of 230 attentive sixth-formers yesterday, she urged: "If everyone who agreed with the Liberal Democrats voted for us we would have a chance."

Claire Matheson, 17, admits that as a teenage Tory she is a rare find in the staunchly Labour North-East. "Only the Conservatives will offer opportunities for all, including the chance of a good education and a job," she proclaimed, adeptly brushing aside questions on party divisions over Europe.

The mock election at Durham Johnston, one of more than 3,600 schools nationwide to hold its own poll, has succeeded in stirring political passion in the classrooms where the national version has not, students say.

The corridors are plastered with poster-slogans: "Twenty years ago the North-East had mines, now it has unemployment," says old Labour, while the Tories take a break from negative campaigning with "dynamic - the party and the candidate".

The hustings each morning this week have been lively, with candidates pinned down on Europe, tax and education, and - in a bold departure from traditional political practice - attempting to answer questions.

"The school can act as a counterweight to the national apathy and raise interest in the election," says Mr Dunford.

So, who from Durham Johnston would have won the key to Number 10? Jonathan romped home by a 25-vote margin over old Labour, and, bringing up the rear, was the valiant Tory candidate, Claire, with 27 votes.

Third came Rebecca, who knows her party will not be governing on 2 May, and second was Rosa, aspiring Labour MP and self-confessed "school- communist", who says it is politicians who behave like schoolchildren. "They bicker and fight like little boys in the playground. It is as if they have forgotten they are running the country."

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