The Liberal Democrats have been courting the votes of students at the University of Edinburgh with visits by high-profile party figures.
Jo Swinson MP, the party’s foreign affairs spokesperson and Tavish Scott MSP, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, made visits to the university campus in freshers’ week to highlight their efforts at engaging students.
The Edinburgh South constituency of incumbent Labour MP Nigel Griffiths is number one on the Lib Dem’s list of target seats in Scotland.
The 2005 general election saw Labour win in the constituency by just 405 votes, making the seat the ninth most marginal in the UK.
Mr Griffiths has faced a tough local climate since the News of the World published an article earlier in the year alleging the married MP "cavorted with a naked brunette in his Parliamentary office on Remembrance Day."
The Lib Dems prospective candidate for Edinburgh South, Fred Mackintosh has intensified his campaign for the seat in preparation for a 2010 general election. He said: “We’re aiming for a 6 May election which is good for students because they’re still here to vote”.
Mr Mackintosh said that issues of student hardship were key to his party’s agenda: “I am confident that our general election manifesto will include a pledge to scrap tuition fees”.
He continued: “Student income is inadequate, especially at this time of recession when graduate unemployment and house prices are high. We need to work hard to prevent students from getting into debt.”
Edinburgh South includes Marchmont, Newington and Sciennes, popular residential areas amongst students.
Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott visited Bristo Square and Teviot Row House to sign a pledge supporting a National Union of Students "Overstretched and Overdrawn" campaign which aims to get the Scottish government to recognise the financial challenge facing students.
He told The Journal: “It’s very important that the Scottish government now ensure that the £30 million they’ve allocated to helping students comes to fruition. My worry would be that at a time of spending constraint they will find other things to spend money on.”
Discussing the issue of higher education funding, he commented: “It’s the biggest challenge we all face.”
Mr Scott, a graduate of Edinburgh’s Napier College—now Edinburgh Napier University—highlighted the potential problems Scotland could face if the funding situation changed further in England: “We know there’ll be a lot less money around in public terms. So Scotland’s going to have to react to that. We must make sure that our universities, not just here in Edinburgh but across the country, remain world-class.”
Liam Burns, President of the National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland said: “We welcome the cross-party support for our proposals, which not only provide grants to the very poorest students and support for student parents, but starts us on the road to dealing with the reality of the current economic climate for students in alleviating commercial debt, and stopping Scotland’s students from becoming even more overdrawn and overstretched.”
The issue of higher education under independence has come to the fore since the Scottish Governments recent announcement that they intend to hold a referendum on the issue as early as 2010.
Asked what the state of universities would be like in an independent Scotland, Tavish Scott said: “My concern is that there wouldn’t be the money to keep our universities world class. There won’t be money to do everything the SNP want to do. Universities wouldn’t be the top priority, would they?”
He continued: “You’ve got to put up an embassy in every country in the world and you’ve got to make sure a Scottish army exists and a Scottish navy exists. How do you make our universities compete with that? It’s just a distraction from making sure we keep our universities where they need to be.”
Mr Scott said the Lib Dems would not go into coalition with the SNP in the Scottish Parliament during the current term, but didn’t rule out a deal after the next Holyrood elections.
He commented: “The current position in this parliament is that the SNP are a minority government and they’ll continue as that for the remainder of this parliament. I’m not going to pre-judge what the state of politics will be after 2011. What I do know is that independence is not the right way forward for Scotland and I wouldn’t support it.”
Jo Swinson, who serves as MP for East Dunbartonshire in addition to her foreign affairs brief, visited George Square to speak in a debate on "rebuilding our broken political system".
Until the Norwich by-election of July this year Swinson was the youngest MP in parliament and has a particular interest in issues affecting young women, having chaired a policy paper called "Real Women" over the past year.
Ms Swinson described the work to The Journal: “We looked at tackling the pay gap, flexible working hours, measures for protecting young women travelling at night. Specifically, safety request stops on buses late at night.
"Incidentally, that would protect men too. Statistics show the final mile of a late night to be the most dangerous.”
Swinson also discussed representation of women in the media: “We recognise the pressures that young girls and women are under everyday with airbrushed images of women being shown to them by the media. We'd expect any photographs that had been touched up to come labelled.”