Election '97: Ashdown's 'open' mission closed up

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Paddy Ashdown's crusade to talk to all and sundry without fear or favour, whatever their politics, wasn't quite what it was cracked up to be yesterday.

In fact an "open circle" of education specialists, parents and other interested parties at the Waldegrave Girls' School in Twickenham wasn't entirely open.

Debarred from the Ashdown presence was a mother who apparently turned up on spec and wanted to ask questions about unacceptably large class sizes in local schools for which the Liberal Democrats hold responsibility through the local council.

But Deidre Razzall, ex-chair of the council education committee, was having none of it. "You are just here to make a political point," she told Mrs Sims.

Ms Razzall thought Mrs Sims had been sent as a "plant" by the Conservative Party in an attempt to disrupt the proceedings.

Mrs Sims refused to give her first name or divulge how she was going to vote - presumably further evidence that she was a Tory. "I'm not trying to make a political point. I live over the road and saw the Liberal Democrats' coach arriving. I came over to see if I could join the meeting."

A likely story thought Ms Razzall who pointed out that those participating in the meeting were politically diverse, "invited" and there to discuss further and higher education.

Alas, Mr Ashdown's mission to spend what he self-consciously described as "quality time" with the electorate, did not extend to Mrs Sims, who never got to see the Lib-Dem leader.

Anyway, Mrs Sims was told that class sizes were nothing to do with the council. It was all the Government's fault.

Inside the meeting Mr Ashdown asked the 20-strong circle what they would do if they were Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education. Most of their replies cost money.

The financial plight of students was later brought home to Mr Ashdown on a visit to South Devon College, at Torquay. On the wall above the photocopier was a message to students: "It is a criminal offence to photocopy currency. This area is under security video surveillance." Reportedly some of the students had been proffering photocopied tenners at the local pub.