Election '97: Ashdown scripts his own voters

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The Independent Online
Paddy Ashdown's office yesterday admitted that he had been inventing angry voters to illustrate speeches and interviews about the school classroom crisis.

In a BBC radio Today programme interview on 4 April, the Liberal Democrat leader argued the case for his party's distinctive pounds 2bn-a-year spending pledge for education, saying: "You go down to Abingdon, where I was last week - the heart of middle England - campaigning...

"A woman came up to me there and said, 'What are you going to do about saving the teacher, the fourth consecutive teacher sacked from my school in four years? What are you going to do about the fact that my child is having to take its education in a class of 40 or more?'

"You tell her it doesn't make a difference."

Unfortunately, Mr Ashdown had already made a similar, broadcast claim about a man who had approached him with an identical complaint in the West Country.

Oxfordshire County Council firmly denied the existence of primary classes over 40 in Abingdon. And though records of teacher employment were kept by individual schools, the authority was not aware of any school which had lost a fourth teacher in consecutive years.

Nevertheless, the problem appeared to be spreading, and Mr Ashdown came up with a new example for London Weekend Television's Jonathan Dimbleby programme on Sunday.

Again illustrating the need for his party's policies, he said: "I was in the Wirral during the Wirral by-election and a woman came up to me and said, 'Look, the opinion polls tell me you'll come third. But my kids are now having a teacher sacked from the school for the fourth year running, and I'm very worried about the crisis in our hospitals and I'm going to vote for you because you're the only party that will do something about that'."

A spokesman for Mr Ashdown's office told The Independent last night that he appeared "to have paraphrased his conversations with different voters, with difference experiences, from difference places, into one answer."

He said the basic point was that there were teachers being sacked four years' running, and there were children in classes of more than 40 pupils - but not necessarily, in Abingdon, or Wirral. "You know what it's like, in the heat of the campaign," the spokesman said.

Last night, Mr Ashdown returned to the fray, telling a rally in Aberdeen that Labour and the Tories were making promises with a hole in the middle, based on "Polo economics", without the finance to fund real change.

He added: "Most people are prepared to pay a little more, provided they know it will be well spent, on things they want to see more money spent on - smaller classes, shorter waiting lists, specific improvements in the services their families rely on."