Ashdown opens poll campaign

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Indy Politics
Paddy Ashdown pre-empted moves by the two main parties by launching the Liberal Democrats' local election campaign yesterday, brushing aside the idea that he might be squeezed by Tony Blair's move to claim Labour as a "party of the centre", writes John Rentoul.

Mr Ashdown said: "I entirely welcome the fact that the Labour leader thinks his party ought to be a party of the centre." But he dismissed both the idea that Labour councils such as Liverpool were of the centre, and the threat from New Labour. "If they were going to squeeze us they would have squeezed us last year, and they didn't."

At last year's elections, Liberal Democrat fears - revealed in a leaked internal memo - proved too pessimistic, as the party gained 500 seats to become the second-largest in local government. But Labour still achieved their best ever result, gaining 1,800 seats. In the memo, the Liberal Democrat councillors' leader, Andrew Stunell, admitted: "Labour are currently the `natural' home of dissident Conservatives."

This year, on 2 May, fewer seats are at stake, and Mr Stunell has only predicted gains of only 50-100 seats. Mr Blair and Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, launch the Labour and Conservative campaigns today.