Britain's Lib Dem leader woos voters in Labour heartland

3rd May 2010, Comments 0 comments

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, the surprise star of Britain's election race, has launched a raid into heartland of the ruling Labour party, just days before voters go to the polls.

"You've not betrayed Labour. Labour has betrayed you," Clegg told some 100 people in a church in this market town in northwest England, during a campaign trail tour on his poll battle bus on Sunday.

"To people who've supported Labour for many, many years, I want to tell them: I understand how difficult it is. It feels almost like a betrayal. But Labour has let you down," he said.

Burnley, not far from Manchester, is a traditional Labour area where the party of Prime Minister Gordon Brown enjoys some of its strongest backing in the country.

This support seems in danger of seeping away, however, and the Lib Dems are ready to take advantage as voters gear up to cast their ballots Thursday.

"People have given up on Labour," said Clegg in Marsden, another northern stronghold of the ruling party.

"After 13 years of Labour in power, manufacturing (has) declined more sharply than under Margaret Thatcher," he declared to thunderous applause, referring to the Conservative prime minister who held power for more than a decade.

The rapid ascent of Clegg, 43, has been one of the major stories of the general election campaign.

A figure who held little interest for the British public before the current poll battle, his strong performance during a televised debate against Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron on April 15 raised his party's profile.

The surge in support was instant -- the party was pushed into second place from its traditional third in the polls, ahead of the embattled Labour Party.

Because of Britain's skewed voting system, however, even if the Lib Dems came in second ahead of Labour at the vote, they would still end up with fewer lawmakers in parliament than the current ruling party.

A switch to a proportional representation sytem of voting is a key part of the party's election manifesto.

But Clegg now declares the election battle is a two-way race between his party and Cameron's Conservatives, who lead in the polls. Cameron, like his Lib Dem counterpart, presents himself as the candidate of change.

But Clegg insisted he was the man to offer Britain a real break with the past after Labour's time in office, saying: "The choice is between real change and fake change."

The Lib Dem leader's popularity -- dubbed "Cleggmania" by the British media -- has taken even his own team by surprise.

"We've had to hire a second bus" to accommodate all the journalists who have rushed to chronicle the growing influence of the former European lawmaker in the British political arena, explained one of his aides.

The leftwing Guardian newspaper, an influential daily which in the past supported Labour, has broken with tradition to back Clegg this time.

But some observers question whether support for the Liberal Democrats will hold up until polling day.

Most surveys published on Sunday put the Lib Dems back in their traditional third place, behind Labour in second and the Tories in first.

Pollsters agree on one point: the Conservatives are likely to win the election but will probably not have an absolute majority, or only a very small one.

If such a situation -- known as a hung parliament -- arose, the Lib Dems could become kingmakers with the power to support one of their larger rivals in forming a government.

Press speculation has swirled about what Clegg would do if there was a hung parliament, but he is too shrewd a politician to show his cards so early in the game.

"If 45 million people decide that no party should get the overall majority, of course, politicians will have to talk to each other," he said, and will give no more away.

© 2010 AFP

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