A lesson in practical politics from Paddy

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Indy Politics
As the prize pugilists of the Labour and Conservative parties tore into each other yesterday over "sleaze", Paddy Ashdown fixed a draught excluder to the front door of an elderly couple's home at Weston-super-Mare in Avon

It is an image the Liberal Democrats are keen to promote. Leaders of the two big parties may spit venom at each other over the indiscretions of MPs and the threat of renewed union power, but Mr Ashdown wants to be seen as a politician with practical answers to practical questions. He believes that the "Paddy Will Fix It" approach is infinitely preferably, especially to women electors, than a three-cornered scrap over sleaze.

In preliminary bursts of electioneering, the Liberal Democrat leader has been keen to emphasise the need for shorter waiting lists of operations, and smaller class sizes - both of which he cheerfully acknowledges will mean a raid on taxpayers' pockets. "To pretend that the education and health services can be improved without more spending is a straight defeat," he said.

Yesterday's sally into practical politics began with a visit to the key marginal constituency of Weston-super-Mare where he ceremonially insulated the home of pensioners Brian and Diane Hampson against draughts. Mr Ashdown had chosen the fifth anniversary of John Major's promise to refrain from raising the VAT on fuel - which the Prime Minister broke a year later - for the visit. The Liberal Democrat Leader announced a manifesto commitment to establish a new "National Home Insulation Programme" aimed at 2 million households with the lowest income which could save each of them up to pounds 85 a year.

The scheme would be paid for by a levy on the energy utilities which would be placed into a central fund which would go to "consumers" rather than a government under Labour's plans for a windfall tax.

Undeterred by suggestions that he was being left out of yesterday's "great debates", Mr Ashdown pressed on to Bridgwater in Somerset, where he engaged in yet more "practical politics". There, he signed a petition to secure more resources for a local school, the abolition of charges for dental and eye check- ups and for the 100 extra police officers which Avon and Somerset's chief constable says he needs. All of this, he says, could be done under the Liberal Democrats, but it would cost taxpayers.

This is the election where the Lib Dems are determined to play to their strengths. In previous elections the party concerned itself with "processes" rather than "outcomes", according to strategists. Whereas Liberal Democrat politicians talked of European and constitutional reform in the last election, now they would be discussing Mr and Mrs Hampson's front door. "We will be talking about class sizes, bobbies-on-the-beat and waiting lists at hospitals - that's what people are concerned about," said Mr Ashdown.

His advisers believe the approach will form a marked contract with the "punch and judy show" going on at Westminster. At the risk of ignoring great swathes of Britain, the Lib Dems are concentrating their practical politics very heavily on target seats. In particular they are focusing on constituencies where they came second in the last election and where the party is in charge of the local council.

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