Election '97: Just 70,000 targeted: what about the election's neglected millions?

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The Independent Online
The great gulf of the election campaign was exposed by Paddy Ashdown and church leaders yesterday, with the Liberal Democrat leader accusing Labour of only being interested in 70,000 key-seat voters out the 44 million registered to vote.

Following a visit to a council estate in south-west London, Mr Ashdown told a Westminster rally last night that he had been to a centre for young single parents - "People who, as the Council of Churches made clear today, are all too often made the scapegoats by politicians, when what they need is our support.

"These are the people whose concerns have so far been addressed by neither Mr Major nor Mr Blair in this election; for the simple reason that, to these people, they have nothing to say.

"These are the people who have been let down, left out and left behind by this Government. And who risk being let down, left out and left behind in this election."

Mr Ashdown said that Labour had lost its passion, conviction, and its crusade, and was instead directing its campaign, cash and message at the short-term concerns of the 70,000 voters in the marginal seats, who advisers said would swing the election, and Labour into office.

Underscoring that point, the churches earlier stepped in where the politicians feared to tread, with a report in which they attacked social division, unemployment and poverty - and criticised all parties, including the Liberal Democrats.

In a report which condemned both public apathy and an over-reliance on the market economy, they called for higher taxation, more public spending, a national minimum wage and reform of the benefits system.

"In the British election campaign the political parties are competing for votes by promising low taxation," the report, Unemployment and the Future of Work, said.

"When so many are living in poverty and unemployment, it is wrong to give priority to the claims of those who are already well off. None of the political parties has put forward a programme which offers much real hope of improvement to those in greatest need."

Members of the inquiry on unemployment and the future of work, conducted for all the main Christian churches in Britain and Ireland, said they were "shocked and saddened" by what they had seen.

Children were growing up in families where unemployment was an inheritance from several generations, they said. While the majority of people had become more prosperous in the past 18 years, a minority had become much poorer. They called for a programme of public spending to create jobs in health, education, community care, service industries and the building trade, funded by increases in taxes for the better off.

Real jobs should be created for the long-term unemployed, they argued, and a minimum wage should improve the lot of the poorest among the employed. Means testing of benefits should be cut, priority should be given to teaching all young people basic skills and a national employment forum should be set up.

Andrew Britton, executive secretary of the churches' working party and former director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, said the "vision of the Kingdom of God" should rule the whole of life including politics and economics.

John Major disagreed with the churches' judgement. "There is no point in wearing your heart on your sleeve if you have nothing in the national wallet with which to help," he said in an interview with Adam Boulton on Sky News last night. Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, welcomed the report and claimed it was an indictment of the state of Britain.

"The Conservatives must now answer whey they have failed to tackle the huge inner city problems of unemployment and why we facet the threat of an underclass in Britain," he said. For the Liberal Democrats, deputy leader Alan Beith said his party offered more than the others to meet the churches' programme.