02/06/2017 17:11 BST

Why Thomas Gravatt, A Student ‘Betrayed’ By The Tuition Fee U-Turn, Wants To Become The Lib Dem's Youngest MP

'We're a dramatically different party - we have new life.'

Catriona McDougall
21-year-old Thomas Gravatt is vying to become the Lib Dem's youngest MP 

When the Lib Dems infamously backtracked on their pledge to oppose tuition fee rises under the coalition government, they burned their bridges with tens of thousands of young voters. 

Seven years on, the Lib Dems are still feeling the effects in the polls. The party, which once enjoyed 30% to 40% of the student vote, now finds itself lagging behind the Tories among undergraduates. 

“It’s the biggest mistake the Lib Dems have made, probably ever,” says student Thomas Gravatt. 

“It was a real betrayal.” 

But unlike thousands of his peers, 21-year-old Gravatt isn’t holding a grudge. 

In fact, he’s vying to become the party’s youngest MP.  

The undergraduate, who was 14 in 2010, said: “When the tuition fee rise came through, I was quite upset by it.

“What I see now in hindsight is that it was a Conservative policy and while it should have been red-lined, it wasn’t.”

Born in North Somerset to an accountant father and a hypnotherapist mother, the modern history and politics student wants to paint the constituency of Southampton Test yellow. 

“The Lib Dems are offering the brightest future for young people in this country,” he said.  

Describing the party as “dramatically different” to how it was in 2010, Gravatt continued: “We can’t go back and change it [the U-turn], but what we do have is Tim Farron, who voted against the tuition fee rise, as our leader.

“We have so many new members, people who have never been involved, and people coming back who left after we went to coalition.” 

He added: “We have a new burst of energy, we have new life.” 

And despite paying £27,000 in tuition fees himself, the Southampton University undergraduate - who has delayed his exams for the election - says the fee system introduced under the coalition is actually “pretty good” as students don’t have to pay “up front”.  

“Although we didn’t stick to the word of voting against a rise in fees, we did still get a sustainable system in,” he said. 

“What it means is, unlike the old system, students aren’t burdened with the cost of their education.

“It also means that people who don’t go to university aren’t paying for the middle class kids who do.”  

But it wasn’t tuition fees which pushed Gravatt to get involved in politics - it was the Conservative Party’s “snooper’s charter” which led the then-teen to join the Lib Dems. 

“The Tories were trying to spy on all our internet histories as part of mass surveillance,” he said. “They were spying on people for no real reason.

“The Conservatives were pushing it all they could with no real understanding of what the Internet is.”

The Lib Dems, on the other hand, are committed to “evidence-based policy”,” the aspiring MP said.  

“We make policy decisions based on the real world and not ideology,” he explained. 

Gravatt - who could become the newest “baby of the House” if he’s elected next week - faces tough competition to win the Southampton Test seat.  

While the constituency narrowly voted to Remain in last summer’s EU Referendum, with the Lib Dems attempting to sell themselves as the “Remainer” party, Labour hopeful Alan Whitehead has been MP since Gravatt was still in nappies. 

In the 2015 election, Whitehead won with a majority of almost 4,000, with the Lib Dem candidate nearly 16,000 votes behind. 

But the final year student - who is thinking about going into teaching after graduation - says his tender age is an advantage in an area which includes Southampton University. 

“I’m much more able to talk to younger people and understand what their issues are,” he said. “Older politicians don’t understand what is important to young people. 

“My age also gives me a different outlook - I haven’t been tarnished by years of inaction in Parliament, or political infighting. I’m fresh.” 

Gravatt added: “There’s every chance I will win - there’s a real sympathy and a real feeling of support in this seat, actually. 

“If every person I speak to on the doorstep who says they are going to vote for me votes for me, I will win.”