ELECTION '97 : Party buses head for highway battles

Blair woos the crowd from his mobile stage
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The Independent Online
One suspected that Tony Blair realised what he had signed the moment he shouted: "I don't know what I'm signing!"

It was a copy of the local newspaper, and he had signed it across a garishly coloured headline that read: "The Future is Orange". Despite first impressions, however, it was not an endorsement of the Liberal Democrats. It was only a reference to the football team supported by the population targeted by Mr Blair's first visit in his campaign battle bus; Northampton Town.

"Oh, no," said Andrew Ball, 25, who had slipped the newspaper under the Labour leader's pen during a frenetic walkabout round the town's market place. "I didn't realise what it said. I'm going to keep it anyway. I'm a Labour man, and the future's Labour."

Mr Ball was one of hundreds of people who saw Mr Blair stand on his "people's platform" - a retractable stage pulled from his bus - for the first time on the campaign trail.

The Blair campaign bus, and the two following with the media on board, were emblazoned with party livery and slogans stating "New Labour - New Britain". Mr Blair's bus bore the words "Leading Britain", while the two behind had "Into the Future" and "With Tony Blair".

Mr Blair's bus, which was carrying only eight people, is kitted out with the latest technology to enable constant contact with Labour headquarters in Westminster. As well as a fax and computer, it also boasts a photocopier, kitchen facilities and a rest area for the Labour leader.

The office facilities are at the rear and include an oval seating area with a table. Nearer the centre of the bus is another table used by Mr Blair to conduct telephone conferences with party officials back in London.

Mr Blair's bus plus four more were leased at a cost of pounds 70,500 and paid for by an entourage of journalists each paying pounds 7,500 for a ticket.

Under blue skies and blazing sun, the crowds in Northampton witnessed a bravura performance. Unsuspecting shoppers were treated to an impromptu speech promising a fresh start for the country. And they cheered what they heard.

"Over the next six weeks, we're going to set before the people of this country what we can do to make Britain better," Mr Blair said. He promised smaller class sizes in schools, a revitalised health service, better training and more jobs for the young. Then he leapt off his platform and, joined by his wife, Cherie, vanished beneath a sea of handshakes and cameras.

"He is the best hope we've got," said Doris Brown, 60, a nurse who gave him a sprig of heather for luck. "I was Conservative for years, but now I'm changing to Labour."

Shopper after shopper pledged their vote and a considerable number said they were abandoning the Tories.

Mr Blair was asked by Vicky Olive, 82, how he would help the elderly. "He said the problem was a difficult one because the numbers of elderly are growing," she said. "But he promised to do what he could to avoid us having to sell our homes if we have to go into care. He's got my vote." Others asked him about jobs, health and education, and he gave them the party line.

Earlier, on his battle bus, Mr Blair said he was excited at beginning the campaign proper. "It is, in some ways, a humbling experience," he said. "All these hopes and aspirations are vested in us, but there is also a sense of excitement at what we can achieve. The whole of my political life has been a preparation, if you like, for this period of time. I came into politics as a doer, not a sayer ... We are anxious to start doing."