Election '97: Ashdown confident of Lib Dem breakthrough

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The Independent Online
Paddy Ashdown toured the South-west by helicopter yesterday, expressing his conviction that the Liberal Democrats were on the threshold of an historic breakthrough.

Mr Ashdown was confident at the very least of a "good result" - translating into a win of around 30 seats for the party. (They held 26 in the last parliament.) The party would have to win most of their 50 target seats for it to claim legitimately a "breakthrough".

Strategists believe that while national opinion polls show only steady growth in support, the party is convinced that candidates in key constituencies are making considerable inroads into the Tory vote. The Liberal Democrats' morale was boosted yesterday by a poll commissioned by a newspaper showing that they were likely to wrest control of Sheffield Hallam from the Conservatives.

At a rally in Shepton Mallet, Mr Ashdown said the party was neck and neck with the Tories in every seat in Somerset. He told his troops that they had 36 hours to get their message across, ensuring the largest number of Liberal Democrat MPs in Parliament since the war.

"We have won the argument. Now we must win the votes and win the seats to give us the power and the mandate to make the difference for our schools and hospitals and communities in the years ahead," he said.

In a direct appeal to waverers in the Tory camp, he said: "Do you want to wake up on Friday morning to find the Government using your vote as an endorsement of their appalling record over the last five years?

"Do you want your politicians to think they can get away with anything - because if the Conservatives get elected this time they will think they can get away with anything."

He urged disillusioned Conservatives to join him, saying: "Don't stay at home. Don't lose the vote for which our parents and grandparents fought. Do something positive. Use your vote to make a difference."

Earlier in the day, he met one of the oldest converts in political history. Elizabeth Gresham, who is nearly 102 years old, has pledged her vote to the Liberal Democrats tomorrow after nearly 70 years of supporting the Conservatives.

Mrs Gresham, who lives in the Forest of Dean, said she believed the Conservatives had been in power for too long and were not providing the social services many of the people needed.

She said that Mr Major was a "nice man," but wondered what Mr Blair stood for. She said she trusted Mr Ashdown.

In a helicopter swoop on Weston-super-Mare, Mr Ashdown and his entourage encountered Margaret Daly, the animated Conservative candidate for the constituency. She shouted at Liberal Democrat supporters that they were "a bunch of conmen" and had lied about the Tories.

The Liberal Democrat-controlled council had let down the area's schoolchildren by spending money earmarked by the Government for education on the refurbishment of the Town Hall, she claimed.

Mr Ashdown's helicopter tour took in Cheltenham, where the Conservatives need a swing of 1.7 per cent to win control from the Liberal Democrats, Hereford where the Liberal Democrats need a 2.8 per cent swing to oust the Tories, and Bath where the Conservatives need a 1.7 per cent swing.

In order to win Weston-super-Mare, the Liberal Democrats need 4.8 per cent and the Conservatives will have to enjoy a swing of 5.8 per cent to unseat the Liberal Democrat incumbent at Wells.