by Allegra Stratton for The Guardian

May 3, 2010

Prime minister puts in extraordinary performance when the three party leaders addressed community groups.

Gordon Brown today put in one of the most extraordinary performances of his tenure as prime minister when the three party leaders took part in an unofficial fourth debate – addressing community groups in the largest live audience of the election campaign.

As the Labour party battles to avoid coming third on Thursday, Brown appeared to find an emotional range and vocabulary previously unheard from him. Prompting repeated standing ovations, he told the audience: "As you fight for fairness, you will always find in me a friend, a partner and a brother." The speech, before 2,500 voters in a large church hall, may end up having been the most electrifying event of the campaign. Critics of the prime minister described it as one of the best speeches they have seen by a politician.

The address to members of CitizensUK – the nation's largest coalition of civil society organisations – at Westminster Central Methodist Church marked the final stretch of the campaign.

All three leaders were questioned on how their policies matched up to a manifesto drawn up by CitizensUK after consultation with its 300,000 membership.

Each delivered a speech addressing how their party was best able to serve the interests of civil society. They were then asked by the organisation's leaders how they would commit to their policies: to adopt a "living wage" in the public sector; impose a cap on interest rates for money lending; establish community land trusts to develop more social housing; introduce a one-off "earned regularisation" for long-term illegal immigrants; and end the detention of children in immigration centres.

Nick Clegg received a partial standing ovation for his speech, but the prime minister was greeted by rapturous applause upon his arrival on the stage, and his address was interrupted several times by raucous cheers when he touched on policy innovations such as the minimum wage that he had helped to bring in.

When one heckler was removed from the stage the audience broke into chants of "Gordon Brown, Gordon Brown".

Brown told the audience: "Your movement is like every other great movement in history. It is built on moral convictions. First hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands of people who say inequality should not be woven into the fabric of our lives, people of compassion and goodwill should never journey without hope, and no injustice should endure forever."

Clegg was able to take comfort from the fact that one of his most controversial policies was a key demand of the CitizensUK manifesto – to regularise the position of illegal immigrants who have been in the country for a decade or more. Clegg said: "It's a moral stain on our conscience and we will put an end to it once and for all."

The Tory leader, David Cameron, was also given a warm reception as he spoke about what he would do if he formed the government on Friday. "You will be in power because you'll have a government that wants to back you, not boss you around."

He added: "I talk about the Big Society; you are the Big Society."

But he said he could not sign up to the amnesty for immigrants as this would encourage more illegal immigration and "put a lot more pressure on our public services". In other areas he was more optimistic, saying that a living wage was a "good and attractive" idea and that the Tories were committed to setting up a fair pay review.

On the issue of children's detention in asylum centres, he said that the Tories would "actively look at this issue and see how we can change things". He also welcomed the idea of community land trusts across the country, making home ownership "more affordable and more fairly distributed".

But to most of those present, it was Brown who stole the show and he acknowledged that in these tired days of his government he was unused to such a reception. Brown told the audience: "You have given me heart today," and he pledged to come back and visit the organisation and its members as often as they wanted.

Brown was even able to turn a tearful encounter into a positive moment. A 14-year-old girl appeared on stage with her mother and her grandmother, both of whom work in the chancellor's office.

First her mother spoke, in faltering English, then the young girl told the audience about their life. She said they sometimes had so little that they had to eat lentils for a week, and that her mother left for work every day at 3:30am to take the bus to work rather than the train in order to save money.

The girl then broke down in tears and the prime minister got up to comfort her.

Marching orders

"When Demosthenes spoke to the crowds in ancient Greece and people turned to each other, they said: 'Let's march.' Let's march for justice, dignity and fairness. That's what we have all got to march for, and let's march for it together." Gordon Brown

"You'll be in power, because the idea which drives you and that drives me – the idea of building a Big Society – will be marching down the corridors of Whitehall. So I want you to come with me and help change this country." David Cameron

"No more moats and duck houses, no more party funding scandals, no more unelected chambers changing the laws of the land just because they have done favours for other politicians. Let's take this unique opportunity, and it is a unique opportunity, for once to do things differently and usher in a new politics which we, once again, can be proud of."Nick Clegg

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