LEADING ARTICLE : Election '97 : You, us and this carnival of democrac y

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No more waiting; as of this morning we are immersed in a full- scale campaign, with every national politician engaged in a struggle to harvest millions of uncommitted votes. It happens rarely but for the next few weeks, THEY are coming to US for the answer.

We should enjoy that; we should take it seriously. Whatever the polls say, nothing is yet decided. Getting here has at times seems an endless slog through squelching sleaze-pits. Already, we have been sold outrageously implausible promises and threats. Already, we have had our intelligences insulted by the spin-doctors and our patience tried by the ad-men.

And all of this has had, already, its inevitable result. Willie Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher's right-hand man, had a fine phrase against electioneering: he was not prepared to "go about the country stirring up apathy". Well, if the national mood seems a little sceptical about the election, and even apathetic just now, that is hardly surprising. It is a weariness that the political elite has worked for years to foster.

But if scepticism is reasonable, cynicism is not. The issues before voters now include the future of our national politics and our currency, as well as the more familiar and difficult challenges - to maintain and fund a good state health service; to improve our often grossly inadequate schools; to stop unemployment turning parts of Britain into alien and miserable bandit ghettos.

The parties' policies are NOT all the same. Nor are the leading politicians: they think differently, fear different things and hope for different futures. Some are thoroughly decent, public-spirited people. Others are fools, and a few are rogues. We have, in short, real choices.

Historically, and still globally, we are privileged people. We ought to be at least a little engaged, to feel the odd tremor of excitement, at the democratic carnival now underway. And if we shrug, and turn away - like Swampy - then we are failing too. Democracies need informed, articulate, arguing citizens, even before they need leaders and parties.

So the first role of the press is to bring readers the facts, and set them fairly in context - to cut through the hyperbole and the statistical smears, and to help readers make honest choices, founded on reason, not prejudice.

Day in, day out, The Independent will be doing its collective best. You have trusted us to do it for a long time. We won't let you down.

Beyond that, we will be bringing you intelligently conducted polls; reportage, gossip and wit from all across the country; daily information on lies and half-truths; advice on tactical voting ... everything, in short, that you need to follow and enjoy the election. Enough, I hope - but no more. We won't forget the other news and we won't drown you in grey columns of blather.

We have - my prejudice - the best team of writers, photographers and editors for this campaign that we have ever had. The political team led by Tony Bevins is better than it was when I worked for it. The columnists are the best and most varied in the paper's history.

We are all biased. But this is one newspaper whose central bias is towards reason and fairness, not a single party manifesto.