Election '97: Ashdown slates lack of passion in Labour

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Labour is fighting a campaign devoid of passion and any crusading spirit of radicalism, because it is concentrating on winning the support of a small number of target voters, Paddy Ashdown said last night.

In a scathing analysis of the way in which the Conservatives and Labour have decided to fight the election, the Liberal Democrat leader told a London rally that he had been too kind last week when he compared them to Punch and Judy.

"The truth is that what we have is Tweedledum and Tweedledee politics, with millions of British people excluded from their own election contest because, in truth, both other parties exclude them from their priorities for the future.

"This election campaign is shamed thus far by the cosy complicity of Labour and Conservatives to turn the other cheek."

While Mr Ashdown attacked the way the Conservatives had smashed the One Nation Toryism that had motivated a whole generation of Conservatives, his attack on Labour was more surprising because of the closeness of the two parties on such issues as the constitution.

Having recalled the distance the Tories had travelled since Margaret Thatcher spoke of St Francis of Assisi's search for harmony, truth, faith and hope in 1979, Mr Ashdown quoted Neil Kinnock, from 1983. Then he warned that if the Tories were re-elected: "I warn you not to be ordinary, I warn you not to be young, I warn you not to fall ill, I warn you not to get old."

Mr Ashdown said that while he had opposed Labour's socialist policies in the 1980s, "at least there was some passion. At least there was some conviction, not just calculation". Mr Kinnock's words "would freeze" on Mr Blair's lips, he said.

"His so-called radical centre concentrates pounds 20m of campaign expenditure and every waking moment of his pollsters, focus groups, ad men and spin doctors, not on the long-term needs of the country but on the short-term concerns of just 70,000 voters in their key seats."

Mr Ashdown said it was an indictment of the electoral system that any party should concentrate its attention on 70,000 people out of 56 million.

He said the Liberal Democrats alone accepted the principle of extra taxation to deal with the problems of underprivilege, although Labour is committed to a pounds 3bn windfall levy on privatised utilities.

But in a reference to his own commitment to raise the basic rate of income tax by a penny to pay for improved investment in education, Mr Ashdown said: "It is our conviction that neglect of a decent education for any group weakens our country as a whole.

"It is our conviction that neglect of decent opportunities for anyone diminishes opportunity for everyone. It is our conviction that neglect of decent conditions for some communities in Britain imperils the safety of all communities in Britain."

Mr Ashdown said Harold Wilson had once said that the Labour Party was a crusade or it was nothing.

"Well, in this campaign, it certainly isn't a crusade," he said.