Ashdown gets new view of old haunt

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Indy Politics
The last time Paddy Ashdown went to Abingdon he fell on it from an aircraft. Mr Ashdown, who completed his parachute training for the Royal Marines at the town's airfield, yesterday arrived more conventionally as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

It was the first skirmish for Mr Ashdown's "battle bus' and it was a foray into a key constituency in middle England.

Oxford West and Abingdon is an area apparently replete with young professionals whose concerns about their future are leavened with Liberal Democrat-style worries about society.

Launching the battle bus at College Green outside Parliament, Lord Holme, the party's election campaign manager, estimated that the coach will have covered around 15,000 miles, travelling to 100 constituencies, by 1 May.

While Lord Holme stays in London to fight his corner in the unseemly wrangle over the proposed television debate between party leaders, Mr Ashdown took to the hustings.

The Liberal Democrats calculate that if 1992 patterns are repeated the Tory vote in the constituency would stand at 46 per cent, compared to the Liberal Democrats' 36 per cent and Labour's 16 per cent. And Mr Ashdown believes that a swing of 5.2 per cent is well within the party's reach.

Mr Ashdown was determined to avoid the traditional whistle-stop tour where electors are regaled with mini-monologues from harassed politicians: "I feel that conferring Westminster blessings on some unsuspecting lathe operator is deeply unsatisfactory," he said. Alas, the inevitable tour of the shopping precinct was little more than that, but the one theme which came through strongly was concern about education - the Liberal Democrat hobbyhorse.

Most illuminating perhaps was his conversation with media students at Abingdon College who have conducted a survey on the political attitudes of 18 to 25-year-olds. Their findings will depress politicians of all colours. Natalie Thorne said that only about one in five held serious political views: "Most of them don't give a stuff."