Student firebrands come of age

Thatcher's children hoping to graduate to the Commons
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The Independent Online
The race is on to become the first student leader to take a seat in parliament since Jack Straw, the shadow home secretary, 18 years ago.

Five former NUS presidents are running for election for Labour. The increase in the parliamentary aspirations of NUS presidents is seen as a result of Labour taking control of student politics after throwing off the far left in the early 1980s. One candidate said they were now "coming of age".

Yet while Labour continues to dominate student politics, it is a former Tory student leader who probably stands the best chance of being elected.

John Bercow, 34, is defending a 19,791 majority in Buckingham. He has risen through the Tory ranks after being chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students in its traumatic final years when, beset by feuding, it was dissolved and abolished by the then party chairman Lord Tebbit.

He has maintained contact with most of his Labour student adversaries who he regards as life-long political enemies.

"It is very possible to have civilised debates with these people but I don't expect to convert them," he said. "You have to confront and defeat them. It's a war of attrition."

Of the former presidents, Lorna Fitzsimons is in the bestposition to follow Mr Straw into Westminster. Contesting a seat in her home town of Rochdale, she has been helped by boundary changes which have cut the Liberal Democrat majority to a couple of hundred.

Ms Fitzsimons, 29, NUS president from 1992-94, is a Blairite now working as a lobbyist in order to gain a better understanding of the private sector. She said the NUS leaders standing for parliament shared a common heritage. "We are Kinnock babies," she said. "None of us are right-wing but we are all modernisers."

She said that while past NUS presidents sought to influence society through law, journalism or pressure groups, there was now a consensus that change could best be brought about through parliament.

Fighting a much tougher seat, is Stephen Twigg, NUS president from 1990- 92, an openly gay candidate, standing against Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, in Enfield Southgate. An Enfield boy, he will need more than local knowledge to overturn a 16,000 majority.

Mr Twigg believes Labour is enjoying the fruits of the shake-up in left- wing student politics in 1980 and 1981, until when extreme-left students had dominated the national union. Then Labour decided to break from the Broad Left alliance and since 1982 a succession of Labour candidates has been elected to the NUS presidency.

"What we are seeing is a coming of age of those Labour presidents of the NUS," he said.

Mr Twigg, 30, said the former student leaders could bring a vital injection of youth into Westminster: "There is such a problem with young people's disenchantment with politics and particularly party politics."

Mr Straw entered parliament in 1979. Few other Labour MPs have since cut their political teeth in student politics but that is set to change.

Charles Clarke, 46, who preceded the new wave of Labour NUS presidents, holding the title from 1975-77, is standing for Parliament for the first time in Norwich South, where he defends a Labour majority of 6,181.

Jim Murphy, NUS president 1994-96, faces a more difficult challenge, overcoming a Tory majority of 11,688 in the Scottish constituency of Eastwood.

But Phil Woolas, 37, president of the NUS from 1984-86 and now head of communications for the GMB trade union, is fighting a three-way marginal in the new constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth.

In student politics Mr Woolas distinguished himself by leading the fight against the Secretary of State for Education, Keith Joseph's plan to impose tuition fees on students.

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