LONDON (Reuters) - Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg got a taste of U.S.-style grassroots community activism on Monday when they appeared on the same platform to spell out their policies on pressing social problems.
Days before Thursday’s election, the three party leaders appeared in turn to address a boisterous 2,500-strong crowd at Methodist Central Hall in central London, the largest live audience they have faced together during the campaign.
The event was organised by Citizens UK, that is harnessing people’s power to influence politicians in Britain in the same way as community activists do in the United States.
The party leaders, who all received a warm reception, were asked their responses to six demands drawn up by Citizens UK, including a call for the next government to adopt a “living wage” in the public sector, an interest rate cap on unsecured loans and an amnesty for long-term illegal immigrants.
Brown, who has looked downbeat in recent days as the polls showed opposition Conservatives and Liberal Democrats pushing his Labour Party into third place, appeared buoyed by the largely appreciative crowd, despite having his speech interrupted when an anti-nuclear protester ran on to the stage.
“You have given me heart today and you have inspired me,” Brown told the audience, made up of members of church and community groups from around Britain.
He laughed off the incident with the protester, saying: “I‘m used to worse.”
Before Brown spoke, a 14-year-old girl named in media reports as Tiara Sanchez broke down in tears as she told the audience how much difference it would make to her life if her mother, a cleaner at the Treasury, was paid a higher wage.
“If they were paying a living wage, my mum could afford the Tube (London Underground) and I would see her for three hours more every day,” she said, between sobs.
Brown put his arm around the girl and comforted her.
The group campaigns for a “living wage” of 7.60 pounds an hour, compared with the national minimum wage of 5.80.
Labour says in its manifesto that if re-elected it would ask all government departments, “within their allocated budgets, to follow the lead of those who already pay the living wage.”
Cameron said the living wage was “an idea whose time has come ... We are already looking at how it could be paid for, perhaps by changing the rules on civil service bonuses.”
Clegg said he agreed with the aspiration of a living wage, but was not sure if the government could afford to make it compulsory.
Clegg was loudly applauded when he spelled out his party’s stance on immigration, which includes a pledge to allow people who have been in Britain illegally for 10 years but speak English and have no criminal record to earn citizenship.
The proposed amnesty is similar to a Citizens UK demand.
Cameron said he agreed with Citizens UK on the need for affordable credit for local communities, shared its concerns about the detention of children in immigration centres, and supported its goal of making housing more affordable by transferring some public land to communities. But he rejected its call for an amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The noisy atmosphere, with singing, chants and loud applause, was a far cry from the heavily regulated televised debates that the three leaders held during the campaign.