This is the last young Tory in Bristol. Whatever happened to the youth vote?

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The Independent Online
Once Britain's politicians might have been terrified of a public grilling by thousands of angry young things.

But the appalling political apathy among the nation's youth is such that three of Westminster's most well-known figures had no qualms yesterday about putting themselves at the mercy of 2,500 future voters.

More than a million potential first-time voters failed to even register for the last election at which 40 per cent of 18- to 25-year-olds did not bother to vote.

The level of political disinterest among Britain's youth was encapsulated by a report yesterday that the Young Conservatives, once a 500,000-strong movement, had been reduced to a single member in Bristol, one of Britain's biggest cities.

Tory Central Office claimed that Richard Carter, 20, an administrative officer with the Highways Agency, was not their only young supporter in the city and that Conservative students at the two Bristol universities were "very active".

Yet when Tony Blair, Paddy Ashdown and David Mellor, made their way yesterday to Westminster's Methodist Central Hall to face questions from thousands of teenagers they could have been forgiven for thinking that they were not entering a political cauldron.

Mr Blair used his opening address to urge young people to use their opportunity to vote, even if it wasn't for Labour.

Referring to the pitiful turn-out among young voters in 1992, he said: "To anyone who hasn't registered to vote: do so. How you use it is for you, but it's an important right that we fought for."

Labour believes it is the party of the young and its youth wing, Young Labour has 30,000 members and is the biggest in Europe.

But the party may have been wincing this morning from its close association with Oasis, after Noel Gallagher the band's singer, attacked the hypocrisy of drug-taking MPs.

The head of Oasis's record label, Alan McGee, hosted a party for Young Labour at last year's conference in Blackpool and Oasis pledged their support for Labour.

After Gallagher's untimely assertion that drug-taking was "no big deal", the Labour leader's affection for youth was further undermined by one surly young voter who asked him about the party's spending plans. "Do you think we're all a bunch of idiots?" the questioner demanded.

Mr Blair replied: "It's not a bunch of idiots here. It's the bunch of idiots in the Government that we should get rid of!"

Labour is not the only political party trying to sir up the youth vote. The Liberal Democrats unveiled a package yesterday which included the proposal to give the vote to 16 year olds and let 18 year olds stand for parliament.

Party leader Paddy Ashdown opened his speech with the opening lines of the film Trainspotting (an 18 Certificate movie about heroin addicts in Edinburgh) - "Choose life, Chose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family", to illustrate the decisions facing young people, and their capacity to make them.

Perhaps the youngsters in the audience were not disciples of Oasis, as they turned on Mr Ashdown over his party's liberal drugs policy. He explained that the party did not support legalisation of cannabis but wanted a Royal Commission to examine ways to tackle the drug menace.

Trying to establish his credibility with the young audience and underline his hostility to drugs he described his times in the rougher areas of Manchester.

"I've been a soldier in the Far East and Belfast. But I have never been as frightened as I was in my life on the streets of Moss Side. Things have improved there since then. But the menace of drugs became very clear to me," he reminisced.

The youngsters did not appear impressed and by the time Mr Mellor stood up to speak they were looking forward to lunch-time. They refused to laugh as told an anecdote of a panicked former Home Secretary faced with making an impromptu speech to prison inmates and starting it with: "How glad I am to see so many of you here today ..."

The MP for Putney was himself less than amused as he gave extremely short shrift to questioners who demanded why the Tories had only sent "a disgraced ex-minister" to address them, and whether people should let themselves be represented in Parliament by "adulterers".

It was left for the Conservative vice chairman Charles Hendry to issue a statement last night saying that the party had no particular policy for youth but young voters should see that the government's policies gave them the best opportunities in life.