Election '97: Ashdown launches into a crusade of beliefs

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Ahead of one of the most intensive campaigns conducted by a British politician, Paddy Ashdown last night launched what he described as a crusade for a new politics. Casting aside any suggestion that the electorate might vote tactically to get rid of the Conservatives, Mr Ashdown called on electors to maximise the vote for Liberal Democrats throughout the country.

A vote for his party was a vote for "victory," he told a rally in Edinburgh. Tacitly accepting that there was no chance of him entering 10 Downing Street, he made it clear that the victory he had in mind was a "massive force" of Liberal Democrat MPs who would fight for real improvements in education and the health service. While Mr Ashdown's party has picked up support during the hustings, most polls put them three or four percentage points behind the 18 per cent vote they attracted in the last general election.

The speech was meant to launch the last seven days of his campaign, during which he will visit 30 constituencies. Mr Ashdown will once more don his man-of-action mantle in the three days up to polling day, dashing around in a 24-seat helicopter, which has been hired at commercial rates. Next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday he will visit more than 20 seats.

Betraying a degree of irritation over suggestions by disillusioned Tory and Labour supporters that a vote for the Liberal Democrats was "wasted", he said the only vote which counted was for policies people believed in.

"If you want better schools, then the only way you will get them is by voting Liberal Democrat. The vote that doesn't count, that won't make the difference, is the Conservative or Labour vote - because they won't do anything about the cuts, the sacked teachers, the rising classes in our schools."

There was very little to choose between Labour and the Tories - they had the same spending limits, the same tax plans and the same failure to explain how improvements would be paid for. The Liberal Democrats attached price tags to their promises, he said.

"The Labour Party has decided to fight this election on the awe-inspiring message: New Labour - no difference." Both Tories and Labour made impossible promises of lower taxes and better services, he said, pointing out that they had been in power for 50 years, but neither had made any real difference. "Don't vote for more of the same. Don't be conned into voting from fear, vote for the things you believe in."

He said it was time for more than just a campaign. "Campaigns are short- term. They are about winning votes. Crusades are about beliefs. They are about the long term."

Given that his party had been out of power for half-a-century, Mr Ashdown named Gladstone and Lloyd George as role models for his new politics.

Earlier in the day, Mr Ashdown visited the 1,600-pupil Cockshut Hill comprehensive school in Yardley, a three-way marginal in Birmingham.