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VIDEO: Candidates clash in Blackburn election debate

VIDEO: Candidates clash in Blackburn election debate

DEBATE: From left, Michael Law-Riding, Jack Straw, Anjum Anwar and Paul English at the debate

ROW: Bushra Irfan at the back of the cathedral.

First published in News Asian Image: Photograph of the Author by , Reporter

THE GENERAL election campaign in Blackburn moved up a gear today with the first showdown between the three main parties.

Blackburn Cathedral was the venue, with a theme of 'Can we trust politicians?'.

THIS is a campaign that looks set to be dominated by debates between the three main party leaders.

And it was standing room only at Blackburn Cathedral this lunchtime as Labour’s Jack Straw faced up to Michael Law-Riding from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat Paul English.

But at times it seemed the event would be remembered not for the candidates on the podium, but because of one who wasn’t - Bushra Irfan.

She is standing as an independent and was furious at being excluded from the event.

As the debate got underway, she clashed angrily with Cathedral staff, and the shouting from her supporters at times drowned out the discussions.

After 15 minutes, police were called and 'moved on' some of the protesters.

Mr English was hoping to match his leader Nick Clegg’s performance last week, which has triggered a surge in the polls for the Lib Dems.

The Skipton councillor was first to speak, claiming the Lib Dems had been 'the least tainted' by the MPs’ expenses scandal.

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“Westminster needs cleaning out from the bottom”, he added.

Coun Law-Riding claimed Blackburn had not improved under Labour, while Mr Straw admitted some MPs had been 'on the make' with their expenses, and accepted people were right to feel 'betrayed'.

The audience took turns to ask questions, with topics ranging from facilities for young people - both Coun Law-Riding and Mr Straw claimed the credit for the borough’s free leisure drive - to controversial new laws on internet piracy.

In response to a question on the Iraq war, Mr Straw, who was foreign secretary at the time of the 2002 invasion, accepted he bore 'a heavy responsibility' and was 'deeply sorry' for people who had died.

But he added: “I would be accused of all sorts of things if I was seen to be ducking and diving now.”

He also accused Israel of 'preposterous' theft of land in the Palestine dispute.

His opponents attacked him over the Iraq invasion, with Coun Law-Riding claiming it proved former Prime Minister Tony Blair could not be trusted and Mr English calling for troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan.

Other topics included mental health care, with all of the panelists calling for a greater understanding of the issue, and the need to restore the link between the state pension and average earnings, abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1980, which all parties have pledged to do.

At the end Anjum Anwar, the Cathedral cohesion worker who helped organise the debate, apologised to the audience for the disruption caused by Ms Irfan’s supporters.

She said: “I apologise for the unruly behaviour by my Muslim sister.

"She forgot this was a house of God, and she wouldn’t have raised her voice in a mosque.”

Lancashire Police said uniformed officers were called to the Cathedral at 1.15pm and several protesters, along with two vehicles, were 'moved on'.

One of the vehicles, both of which were towing campaign displays, was an ice cream van.

Nobody was arrested.

A spokesman for Ms Irfan said: "We were invited, then we were told to sit in the audience.

"That is outrageous."

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