Ashdown says Price is right for voters

Alan Price used to provide the backing for Eric Burdon and the Animals, but today he will be providing the musical support to Paddy Ashdown in a Liberal Democrat party political broadcast.

Mr Price, who used to appear in a muffler and flat cap singing "Georgie Girl", is a long-term Liberal Democrat supporter and will be playing a gig at the party's annual conference next week in Brighton.

The keyboard player broke away from the Animals after their string of Sixties hits, including "House Of The Rising Sun", under the pressure of stardom. When he formed his own band, the Alan Price Set, he again got on the pop treadmill with another string of hits, including "I Put A Spell On You", "Don't Stop The Carnival", "Hi Lilli Hi Lo", and "Simon Smith And His Amazing Dancing Bear". Backing the Liberal Democrats, Mr Price, now in his mid-50s, is following a tradition of stars drawn into politics, including Andrew Lloyd Webber, who arranged the 1992 Tory election theme and the protest singer Billy Bragg, who has lapsed from New Labour.

The Liberal Democrat election campaign chairman, Lord Holme, said Mr Ashdown would be more open in the election campaign than Tony Blair and John Major.

"Paddy Ashdown will be out talking to people. I don't see any way in which Paddy personally will run the sort of protected, sheltered, spin- doctored 'you get to see him once a day in the most flattering light' campaign. It will be more open than that," he said.

The party's strategists appear to be using today's broadcast to build a campaign around Mr Ashdown's popularity in the opinion polls.

It features the party leader talking informally to a group of non-committed voters about education and health policy.

The same format will be used by Mr Ashdown in the general election but Lord Holme denied the campaign would be a "one-man band".

The polls show that the Liberal Democrats are averaging around 14 per cent, and may be suffering from being squeezed by the success of Mr Blair in winning over wavering Tory voters.

The Liberal Democrats will be fighting a national campaign, but they are concentrating their forces in marginal seats where they came second to the Tories. Mr Ashdown has ended the policy of equidistance between the other two main parties. The theme for next week's Liberal Democrat conference - "Take courage for the future" - is intended to sound a more optimistic note than the other parties.