Election '97: Luton's flowers suffer from crop of reds in the bed

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Luton's municipal gardeners will remember the day Tony Blair came to town long after the memory has faded in the minds of the people who booed and cheered him yesterday.

Crushed bulbs and withered stems were his legacy as those for him and those against were marshalled, shouting at each other from the raised brick flower beds that pass for street chic in Bedfordshire.

"Go on home you fat slag," was but one of the comments launched from the red flower bed as the blue corner, peopled by a handful of hardy Tory women, tiptoed heavily through the tulips shouting: "Tory not Tony!"

Into the pedestrianised valley between them strode Mr Blair, smiling resolutely, daggers to the right of him, chanting to the left. He had just arrived on the Labour battlebus, climbed on to his red-carpeted podium and greeted Luton's shopping masses outside their town hall. He issued the usual promises - more nurses, fewer managers; smaller class sizes; something for the elderly, something for the young - and then launched himself into the frenzied mass with a gusto that can come only from a determination to govern ones country.

The Tory corner was filled with no more than five or six women holding placards, but they made enough noise and carried enough weight to disrupt the event and demolish the flowers.

"He's just a puppet of the unions," said Barbara Jones, 31. "I don't want him to ruin the economy and I want to keep my job and be able to pay my mortgage.

"This is nothing, anyway," she added, surveying the crowd of 200 or so. "There were 10 times this many when John Major came two weeks ago."

As Mr Blair and his wife, Cherie, shook scores of hands, making almost as many friends, Ian Pringle, 31, a council worker, shook his head.

"There may have been more people," he said. "But they were booing and jeering. It wasn't exactly a warm reception."

The passion had manifested itself for a reason. Luton has two constituencies, north and south, which are well within Labour's reach. In the north, Kelvin Hopkins needs to claw back a majority of 5,949 to topple Tory David Senior. In the south, Margaret Moran needs to overturn a majority of just 583 to replace Sir Graham Bright, another Conservative. And the feeling in the town centre yesterday was that they could do it.

"I'd prefer it if they didn't win," said Malcolm Garlick, 37, a flower seller. "They're moving in the right direction but they could do with another five years of learning about business. Having said all that, I think they will take both Luton seats."

The words would have warmed the cockles of Mr Blair's heart and, if he had heard them, perhaps he would have planted a few red roses in his wake.