Election '97: Mud flies as parties swap tit for tat

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The Independent Online
The election campaign hit new peaks of personal abuse with John Major and Tony Blair trading blows over the negative attacks each party has been making against the other.

The Labour leader told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme: "There are two election campaigns going on here, in my view. There's the sort of tit-for-tat one, you know, the Conservatives knock us, we do some knocking back, and all the rest of it. There's a wholly negative campaign, I may say, being run by them.

"What we have to do is address the other election campaign, and that is on the issues, the things that really matter to people - schools, hospitals, law and order, jobs, industry, pensions, crime."

When it was pointed out that Labour had yesterday issued three briefing notes, all attacking government policies, the Labour leader said: "Well, of course we've got to draw attention to their record."

Mr Blair said that he wanted to lift the campaign above the "ding-dong battle" that was turning off the voters. But yesterday's Labour press notices were headed: "Failing the test: The Tories' record on education"; "Tory broken promises on defence stability"; "Fins can only get better. A briefing note on Conservative fishing failures."

At Labour's daily press conference, Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, struggled to explain the difference between the party's positive aspiration and the negative notices.

"We will fight the election on the positive issues," he said. "We will fight on education, on health, on law and order." But he then added, confusingly: "We will not refrain from drawing attention to the Conservative record."

Meanwhile, over at the Liberal Democrats' base, their leader Paddy Ashdown was making an impassioned plea for a fairer, more mature election - after he had claimed that Mr Major's approach to Europe was "fatuous and futile."

Mr Major said in an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live: "This is a rough, tough campaign. No politician in it, if he is in the front rank of politics, can be an icon who is above criticism.

"Whenever the Labour Party are criticised they seem to think that in some curious fashion it is unfair. The Labour Party have been subjecting the Conservative government and individual Conservative members to the most scurrilous criticism day after day over the past two years, yet they shrink away whenever there is any criticism of them as though it was unfair.

"Politics is a tough trade. As someone once memorably said 'If you can't stand the heat, don't get in the kitchen'."

But the row was stepped up last night by Peter Mandelson, Labour's campaign manager, who told Sky News: "We've not had a speech, we've not had a press conference, we've not had an interview, or an utterance by the leadership of the Conservative Party that has not thrown some mud at the Labour Party, that has not hurled some piece of personal abuse at Tony Blair in particular.

"This evening, the Prime Minister is making a speech, 17 pages of a speech, and it does not contain a positive idea or an ounce of vision about Britain's future. It is just negative, negative, negative mud-slinging and abuse and back-biting directed at the Labour Party. Now this is the politics of the gutter."

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