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Tuesday, 14 March, 2000, 19:00 GMT
Dobson issues debate challenge

Frank Dobson: Needs to claw back Ken Livingstone's lead
Labour's Frank Dobson sought to seize the initiative in London's mayoral campaign on Tuesday by challenging frontrunner Ken Livingstone to a series of head-to-head debates.

London Mayor
Mr Dobson, Labour's official candidate, and Mr Livingstone - whose decision to run as an independent prompted the party to suspend him - have been taking part in a series of election hustings with Conservative Steve Norris and Liberal Democrat Susan Kramer.

But in what was being seen as a bid to claw back some of the runaway opinion poll lead recorded by rival Mr Livingstone, Mr Dobson called on the Brent East MP to face him alone in three debates.

In a letter to Mr Livingstone, he insisted he "never wanted this contest to be about personalities. I always wanted it to be about policies and issues."

"But the reality is this contest is between the two of us. You know it and I know it."

Ken Livingstone: Wants to debate with the other main candidates
The former health secretary said it was "only right" Londoners should "get the chance to understand the clear dividing line between the nature and cost of my policies on crime, jobs and transport and the nature and cost of yours".

He also accused the left-winger of tailoring his comments to the audience he was addressing and of favouring four-candidate hustings to avoid giving a "true picture" of his programme.

'Obsessed with internal battles' - Norris

Mr Livingstone rejected the idea, saying he preferred to debate with all the chief contenders.

Steve Norris: A spokesman dismissed Mr Dobson's challenge as being "about Old Labour versus ex-Labour"
"I am not happy about excluding Susan Kramer and Steve Norris," he told the Evening Standard.

"It is not like Frank and me are the two figures immensely ahead in the polls and the rest are no-hopers."

A spokesman for Mr Norris's campaign also dismissed Mr Dobson's call. "The only real challenge facing Frank is remaining in this race," he said.

"Sadly, as ever, Frank is more obsessed with fighting internal battles rather than addressing the issues that face Londoners."

Conventional political wisdom holds that debate challenges are traditionally issued by trailing candidates in a contest in an attempt to impact on the leading contenders' standing.

Treatment of pensioners 'a disgrace' - Livingstone

Earlier, Mr Livingstone told a debate held by the Greater London Forum for the Elderly that he was "ashamed" of the government's attitude towards pensioners.

The ex-leader of the Greater London Council told about 300 pensioners it was "a disgrace" that "a Labour government with the biggest majority in its history ... are talking about cutting taxes rather than honouring pensioners".

"The government's priorities are wrong," he said and pledged "respect and justice" in retirement if he was elected mayor.

Kramer pledges better transport access

Mr Dobson promised to tackle crime and make London's streets safer for elderly people, to improve health care for pensioners and to modernise transport.

"There are a lot of nervous older people and we have got to do something about that," he told the meeting. "We have seen police, caretakers, ticket collectors and hospital porters disappear from the streets ... and as a result minor crime has flourished."

Ms Kramer pledged to improve public transport and make it more accessible for the elderly and disabled.

She called for a higher police presence on the streets and said she was determined to save high streets and markets which "underpin communities".

Mr Norris vowed to let pensioners travel around London without fear and on their own and to eliminate pockets of poverty in the capital

"What's the point of a doctor helping you live longer and your home becomes a prison?" he asked.

The Tory candidate was later due to address a meeting of Asian students in the capital. He was expected to restate his promise to have a mayoral cabinet that faithfully "reflects the ethnic diversity" of London.

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See also:

13 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Livingstone: I'll fight for the euro
13 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Dobson's tax-free transport pledge
12 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Hands off my beard: Dobson
09 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Livingstone's race for campaign cash
08 Mar 00 | UK Politics
PM rallies behind Dobson
07 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Mayor candidates line up for debate
07 Mar 00 | UK Politics
The mayor race in pictures
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