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By Adam Bouyamourn
Leading contenders for the Oxford East seat pledged at a debate on Monday to cap tuition fees and support more housing as they sought the student vote in a race the incumbent calls “wide open”.
Six candidates for parliament debated in front of students at the Oxford Union, the first time the Union has hosted all local candidates for a debate open to audience questions.
Labour MP Andrew Smith won the previous election by just 963 votes over a Liberal Democrat challenger, making the constituency one of the most marginal seats in the country and a prime target for the energised Lib Dems.
Both Labour and the Lib Dems have signed an NUS pledge to vote against increasing student tuition fees, while Conservative candidate Ed Argar said he wanted to give students an “honest answer”.
“It is not unreasonable for students to make a contribution,” he said. “Tuition fees are here to stay.”
Argar questioned whether a Lib Dem pledge to abolish tuition fees over a period of six years was realistic.
Both the Lib Dem and Labour candidates agreed that there is a shortage of suitable student housing in the area. Steve Goddard, the Lib Dem candidate, said the city council could make derelict council houses available for sale and redevelopment.
Smith, the Labour MP, said this would not meet student demand and proposed that the city consider opening up industrial areas to residential development.
The debate, which also included the Green, UKIP and Socialist Equality parties, also ranged over issues from mental illness to the legality of the Iraq War.
UKIP candidate Julia Gasper termed the three main parties “corrupt and old” and urged students not to “waste their vote.”
Labour has held Oxford East for more than 20 years against growing Lib Dem support.
Jason Keen, a student at St John’s College, said: “It was great to hear all the candidates speak, but I was disappointed by the lack of focus on student-specific issues. Considering it was a completely student audience, I would have liked to have heard more about cuts in Higher Education and graduate unemployment.”
Union President Laura Winwood said: “Given that Oxford East is one of the most marginal constituencies, the student vote could make all the difference on 6th of May.”
About a quarter of Oxford East residents are full-time students, according to 2001 census figures.