LIBERAL Democrat leader Charles Kennedy insisted his party had "high hopes" of making a political breakthrough in the North-East at May's General Election.

Speaking in Newcastle only minutes after the election was called, Mr Kennedy insisted his party could translate recent successes at council elections into Parliamentary seats in the region.

Mr Kennedy told The Northern Echo: "When you get a pronounced swing in political opinion it can go right through a city and right through a region - it is all there to play for."

He added: "In Blaydon, Durham and Newcastle itself we have high hopes and a firm intention of breaking through against Labour.

"Parliamentary by-elections show that our support at local level can be translated into support at a national level - we almost did so in Hartlepool just a few months ago.

"Once we have established a local base then we can build upon that and we will make advances at Parliamentary level from Labour."

The Lib Dem leader's first public appearance after Mr Blair finally called the General Election was at a walkabout in Newcastle's Northumberland Street, where he insisted his party would fight a positive campaign.

"We are going to be ambitious about our country and what we have to offer our country," he told supporters.

"I am not going to spend these next few weeks talking Britain down. I am going to be addressing people's hopes not playing on people's fears."

He insisted the party would address issues of fairness, raise taxation for high earners and use the money to provide free personal care for the elderly and the abolition both of top-up fees and student tuition fees. He also promised to scrap the National Identity card scheme and use the money to put more bobbies on the beat.

He added: "There is no doubt in my mind that many people will be reflecting on the tragic errors of judgement of recent years over the war in Iraq and all the international implications of that has had.

"I am proud of the fact that in this election I am leading the only party which stood united in the House of Commons against that war."

At present, the Liberal Democrats' only seat in the region is Berwick, but the party is campaigning hard to overturn large Labour majorities in the constituencies of Durham City, Blaydon and Newcastle Central - all seats where they have already had a string of victories at council elections.

While he refused to be drawn on how many seats he felt his party could win, Mr Kennedy insisted that voters had a "clear cut" choice between his party and Labour.

"We have had a Labour establishment for too many decades and people in Durham, Newcastle and elsewhere are increasingly turning to the Liberal Democrats," he said.

"Clearly, the position of the Conservative Party is hopeless - they have all but disappeared at a local level - and we will find a lot of people who want an alternative to Labour are coming across to us."

He added: "The wasted vote in the North-East is a Conservative vote - they have disappeared off the map and the big battle is between Labour and ourselves."