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‘Broken promises’

Jess Bowyer
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PhD student Jess Bowyer, 25, said she felt “betrayed” when tuition fees were increased

The Liberal Democrats have launched a manifesto aimed at younger voters – but will this entice them back after the party’s controversial coalition with the Conservatives and U-turn on tuition fees?

“I think the problem the Liberal Democrats have to deal with is one of trust and broken promises,” says PhD student Jess Bowyer.

She voted for the party back in 2010 when she was 18 and about to go to university.

At the time, the Lib Dems had pledged that the party would oppose any rise in tuition fees.

But, following the election that resulted in the party forming a coalition government with the Conservatives, MPs approved plans to allow universities in England to charge annual tuition fees of up to £9,000.

That was nearly three times the previous £3,200 limit.

“I felt so betrayed,” says Ms Bowyer, 25, who is studying at Exeter University.

“It was ridiculous that I voted for them and six months later I was at a tuition fees protest.”

‘Fed up’

Voters punished the Lib Dems when they went to the polls in 2015 and the party lost 49 of its 57 seats.

Steven Fielding, professor of political history at Nottingham University, says the Lib Dems lost voters in every age group, but the party fared particularly badly among with younger voters.

Studies suggest it has not yet recovered.

The proportion of students who would vote Lib Dem dropped from 44% in 2010, pre-coalition, to 13% in 2014, data from the British Election Study suggests. It increased to 16% in 2015, and 20% in December 2016.

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Students protested against coalition government plans to increase tuition fees in 2010

Last month, Higher Education Policy Institute and YouthSight polled more than 1,000 full-time undergraduate students entitled to vote and said the impact of the tuition fee increase “still lingers”.

The survey suggests 53% of students planning to vote think it is a factor in deciding which party to vote for in 2017, while 26% don’t.

However, Leeds University student Ed Thornley, who will vote Lib Dem, says the “vast majority” of students are “getting fed up” with the tuition fees issue.

“It is becoming less of a thing to people going to university,” the 19-year-old campaigns officer for Leeds Young Liberals says. “People are just getting fed up of promises on tuition fees.”

“Brexit is more of an issue.”

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Lib Dem supporter Rahul Mansigani protested against tuition fees when he was a student

Brexit is the issue the Lib Dems have put at the heart of their campaign, with a pledge for a second EU referendum in their general election manifesto.

“They have to try and get back those younger voters that they lost in 2015,” says Prof Fielding. “They cannot promise to get rid of tuition fees but they can promise other things.”

He highlights pledges including discounted bus travel for 16-21 year olds, reversing housing benefit cuts for 18-21-year-olds and votes for 16 and 17-year-olds.

But can the party win back younger voters?

“They are trying – who launches their manifesto from a disco?” Prof Fielding says, referring to the manifesto launch on Thursday from London nightclub Oval Space.

“The problem is they made [the tuition fee] pledge and went back on it,” he says. “Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron voted against tuition fees, but his party is tainted by that.”

Sarah Olney, the party’s education spokesperson, says the Lib Dems established a “fairer system such that no undergraduate student in England had to pay a penny of their tuition fees up front or pay anything afterwards until they earn over £21,000 per year”.

‘Alarm at Brexit’

For Ms Bowyer, who voted Remain, the Lib Dems’ pro-EU stance is not enough to entice her back.

She says she was also unhappy with coalition government policies, such as the so-called bedroom tax and welfare cuts.

“I don’t know of a single person who will vote Lib Dem this election in Devon, which used to be Lib Dem heartland,” she says, adding that her friends and family are intending to vote Labour or Green.

“I will be voting Labour.”

But Rahul Mansigani, from London, protested against tuition fees when he was a Cambridge University student in 2010, and he will be voting for the Lib Dems.

“We were very angry, not just at the Lib Dems but the Conservatives as well,” the 29-year-old says of the tuition fee increase.

“Now I think young people are joining the Liberal Democrats – I think it is alarm at the prospect of Brexit. It is the most significant thing.

“In the context of Brexit, tuition fees have become less of an issue.”

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