Liberal Democrats: Ghost of Kinnock haunts Clegg's final plea

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Sheffield is a brave place to stage an eve of election rally. It was in the Steel City in 1992 that Neil Kinnock, then riding high in the opinion polls against John Major, was spectacularly undone with a breathtaking display of hubris in front of 10,000 screaming followers scenting victory in what has become the textbook example of how not to appeal to last-minute floating voters.

The lesson was not lost on Nick Clegg last night as he came to the final stop on the final day of a campaign that has been an extraordinary personal triumph for the Liberal Democrat leader. He finished up here, in his home city that was once a Labour stronghold, but which his party has governed at local level since 2008 and where it now hopes to add a second MP to its tally.

His staff were desperate to play down suggestions that this was some kind of Sheffield Rally 2 – it was just another low-key encounter with voters, they stressed. And, unlike the Labour leader two decades ago, Mr Clegg ensured that there were no damaging presidential helicopter arrival shots, instead opting to be driven from his penultimate engagement with students in Durham.

There had been a hiccup earlier in the day in Eastbourne where he had been embarrassed ahead of his arrival, after a local volunteer was arrested on suspicion of vandalising Conservative posters. But here there were to be no final slip-ups: no Kinnock-style fist-pumping invocations of "all right" to the arena hordes, just several hundred enthusiastic young supporters, and the politically curious, who had gathered patiently for him. They had waited for more than an hour around the war memorial in Barker's Pool, beneath rain clouds and the chill of a South Yorkshire evening.

Mr Clegg's arrival was heralded by a roar from the crowd as he fought his way through a phalanx of cameras to the steps of City Hall. Activists brandished "I Agree With Nick" placards and jostled with Labour followers seeking to upstage the surprise star of the election campaign. Many of the supporters were students in their twenties, having been turned on to the Liberal Democrats and its leader through the television debates. Older party hands could only marvel at how far they had come under Mr Clegg, an MP since 2005.

He again emphasised the themes he had worked on so relentlessly throughout the long campaign: fairness and political reform, offering a vision of the future that drew whistles and cheers of support from those who had come to hear him. "These are now the closing hours of one of the most exciting general election campaigns in a generation – and it is time to make a choice," he urged. "A choice between the old parties of the past and the new politics of the future."

Accusing Labour and the Tories of playing "pass the parcel" with power for previous decades as if it were their "birthright", he promised that if he got into power, he would deliver a fairer tax system, a better start for children and that he would fix the "broken economy" which he said would "never be held hostage again by a small clique of bankers in the City of London".

"I promise you I will do everything I can to deliver a fairer better Britain," he said, his speech battling against a loud heckler shouting "liar" from behind him. He implored his supporters to seize the moment. With passion, or perhaps tiredness, now crackling in his voice, he demanded: "Don't let anyone tell you that your vote doesn't count. Wherever you are, wherever you live, vote with your heart. Vote with your better instincts. Vote for the future you want, not the future the politicians tell you you should want. Vote for what is best for you and your family. Aim high, don't settle for second best."

Those who had come to see Mr Clegg were impressed. Ruth Morgan, 59, a university administrator who has been a party activist for 20 years, marvelled at the excitement being generated around her. "I never thought I would see this. Nick has really got out the young people. He has really fired them up and that is what a leader is about," she said.

Mr Clegg shook hands with well-wishers as he got back in his car to make the short drive to his constituency home in leafy Sheffield Hallam, on the edge of the Peak District, to have dinner with his wife, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, and their children before polling day and the long night of results ahead.