Ashdown shuns machismo to catch the female vote

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The Independent Online
Paddy Ashdown has been persuaded that he has a lot more to offer female voters than either the Conservative or the Labour leader.

As part of a "women-friendly" campaign, the Liberal Democrat leader will attempt to listen rather than hector, suggest rather than assert and tell the truth rather than dissemble, his aides argue. Where John Major and Tony Blair will don the mantle of gravitas, Mr. Ashdown will try for statesmanlike humility with the odd giggle thrown in.

He believes that the cock-fighting tactics of the other party leaders are a turn-off to voters in general, and to women in particular.

To reinforce the pitch for female votes, he will be enlisting high-profile help from Baroness Williams of Crosby (former Labour minister Shirley Williams), Emma Nicholson, former Tory and now Liberal Democrat MP for Devon West and Torridge, and Diana Maddock, MP for Christchurch.

The Liberal Democrats might or might not believe it an advantage that the 56-year-old Mr Ashdown is due to become a grandfather for the first time during the hustings.

When the wheels of the Liberal Democrats' "battle bus" finally start turning on 7 April - it will no doubt become known as the Paddy Wagon - Mr Ashdown will want to be seen as a listener rather than a speechifyer.

His campaign managers boast that he will meet far more electors than the other party leader. The Liberal Democrat high command is determined to avoid television footage of Mr Ashdown charging through shopping precincts preceded by spin doctors, scattering voters and leaflets in his wake.

His senior lieutenants also insist that the party will avoid "negative campaigning", although a press conference at their headquarters yesterday failed to resist the temptation.

"Labour is not offering a change, it is offering an echo," was one of the themes. In the words of Lord Holme, party campaign manager, Mr Major and Mr Blair are engaged in an exhibition of "synchronised swimming".

The campaign's clarion call - which will adorn the manifesto, leaflets and all other material - will be the injunction: "Make the Difference". This may be regarded as a slightly negative way of being positive. Different from what?

Senior officials at the party's Cowley Street headquarters in Westminster calculate that Labour's inexorable march to the right has left a yawning gap into which they can pour their limited resources.

Strategists are targeting the constituencies, particularly in the West Country where the Liberal Democrats have come a close second to the Tories.

Honesty will be the buzz word on the campaign trail. Honesty about increased taxes - the only credible way of improving education, the party argues. And honesty about Europe - the only party to be unashamedly Europhile.

To those who contend that the proprietorship of a whelk stall may only be a distant ambition for the party, Mr Ashdown will point to the pounds 15bn of public money for which they are responsible as the second largest party at local authority level. The general election coincides with voting in local elections.

And to those who dare suggest that the Liberal Democrats are basically Paddy Ashdown's party, they argue that he is more "team leader" than generalissimo.