Election '97: Blair vows to give his heart and soul to Britain

Labour triumphant: Wilderness years consigned to the history books as reborn party celebrates massive and momentous victory
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair said last night that he would serve the country with "all my heart and all my energy." Voting for a new Labour government offered a new chance for Britain.

In his acceptance speech in his Sedgefield constituency, with his wife Cherie at his side, Mr Blair said: "We are a great country. The British people are a great people. There is no greater honour than to serve them and serve them we will."

Mr Blair went on: "This was a vote for the future, not a vote for outdated dogma or ideology. It is a vote for the end of division, an end of looking backwards, a desire to apply the basic decent British values of common sense and imagination to the problems we all now face.

"It is with a real sense of pride that we have created a Labour Party today that is capable of delivering the purpose, vision and renewal that the country leads.

"With these decent values in place we can tackle the problems of the country, the problems of schools, hospitals, taking crime off the streets and jobs. We will bring the things that determines whether the country succeeds or fails. We are a great country and are a great people and it is a great honour to be able to serve you and serve them."

Thanking his family, friends, constituents and party workers, he said: "You have been absolutely magnificent to me all the way through. The greatest pleasure I have is to serve you with . I will not let you down."

Blair held his Sedgefield constituency comfortably with 33,526 votes (71.16 per cent of the vote), against the Conservative candidate (8,383) and Liberal Democrat (3,050), creating a Labour majority of 25,143 and a notional 9.61% swing from Conservative to Labour.

From 10pm, when the first exit polls predicted a landslide, the faithful at Trimdon Labour Club welled with hope and expectation and pride.

For 14 years they had waited, providing Mr Blair with the base he needed to build new Labour and to build it largely on the values they held; on decency, equality and free of extremist dogma.

"By God, he will make a change to this country," said Joan Smith, 75, who joined the party when she was just 15. "We have been hoping and praying for this moment for so long. He is kind and able and intelligent. He will bring back the sort of values this country has been missing under the Tories, with all their sleaze and arrogance."

The astonishment began to be felt as early as 10pm when the BBC declared the results of its exit polls - and a Labour majority of 185. Then, at 10.50pm came the first result, and a resounding cheer. Chris Mullin had held Sunderland South with a swing to Labour of 11 per cent, the figure reflected in the exit polls.

With the Federation brewery of Gateshead laying on a 79p a pint election night special, the hope turned to joy and the joy to delight. They sat and cheered each result as they came in, flashed across a bank of 16 television screens.

And in the middle of the celebrations were Warren McCourt, 71, the former leader of Sedgefield District Council, and Frank Robson, 73, a former Darlington councillor, and they shared a smile at their own greatest personal defeat in politics. Because they were both on the shortlist of six from which Mr Blair was selected as the Sedgefield candidate in 1983.

"Boy, am I glad we lost," said Mr Robson. "Tony is a man of tremendous vision and charisma. We lost that night but it's hard not to feel like a winner now."

"It's absolutely wonderful," said John Burton, 56, Mr Blair's agent and one of the original team of five local men who got the Labour leader selected as their candidate in 1983.

"We have been waiting for this for 14 years. For the past three weeks I have been saying I have been fairly confident we could win. But now it's happening and the Conservatives are getting what they deserve.

"They have only themselves to blame for all the sleaze and their lack of policies. Now Tony can get to work putting this country to rights. He is an amazing man - we have known that for 14 years but now the rest of the country can find out too."

Mr McCourt, 71, said "I'm absolutely delighted that I lost on that night," he said. "While they were doing the count then, I had a pint with Tony and I knew I was seeing someone special.

"Now he will save the country. I have served under lots of Labour leaders, from Clement Atlee to Tony Blair, and I can tell you that, tonight, the gap between Clement Atlee and Tony Blair is very small indeed. But the landslide of 1945 is nothing compared with what we have seen tonight."

Strict security was evident all the day in the constituency, and police and security services will be on high alert today throughout the country amid fears that the IRA may choose the first day of the new government to continue its campaign of disruption.

Police took the highly unusual step of using officers armed with Heckler and Koch automatic weapons, and wearing bullet-proof vests, to patrol the village and polling station at Trimdon, Co Durham.

A police spokesman said a small number of armed officers had been used in the Durham force's area for several weeks.

It made for an incongruous scene. Mr Blair in shirtsleeves, his wife, Cherie, and their children had looked relaxed under clear blue skies as they strolled to the tiny polling station at Trimdon Colliery Community Centre, shadowed by the armed police officers.

Extra police officers were on duty at many of the country's 45,000 polling stations and bomb searches were carried out at the counting centres.

But anti-terrorist officers believe that today is a more likely target. The IRA may be tempted to seize the new government's attention by staging a series of bomb threats in the first hours of power.

A vast number of both covert and overt security operations were used yesterday to try and ensure that nothing prevented people going to the polls.

The IRA has demonstrated repeatedly in recent weeks its ability to cause mayhem on motorways, railways and air services with coded telephone calls.