Election '97: Party in full swing as scale of success emerges

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The Independent Online
There were wild scenes at Trimdon Labour Club in Mr Blair's Sedgefield constituency as the scale of the Labour victory became apparent. Party workers, who until then had been extremely cautious, began admitting that they believed they had won - and won well.

"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."

Warren McCourt, 71, former leader of Sedgefield district council, was one of the six men listed on the shortlist the night Mr Blair was selected as candidate for Sedgefield.

"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."

As the results began pouring in the gathering of 400 at the club began celebrating with an increasing sense of disbelief. When the first verdict, Chris Mullin at Sunderland South, came in, the level of the swing astounded them. At 11 per cent it reflected the exit polls.

"My God," said one worker, "if they're right, we've got rid of the Tories for a very, very long time."

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.

Polling passed off peacefully yesterday following an unprecedented package of security measures, including the use of armed police officers at the Labour leader's constituency, where 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 as part of the heightened security alert.

It made for an incongruous scene. Mr Blair in shirtsleeves, his wife, Cherie, and their children, Euan, 13, Nicholas, 11, and Kathryn, nine, looked relaxed under clear blue skies as they strolled to the tiny, flower- bedecked polling station at Trimdon Colliery Community Centre, shadowed by the armed police officers. Outside the Blairs' home two officers, again in bulletproof vests and cradling automatic weapons, stood guard all day.

"We never discuss the specifics of security, but, along with other forces, we increased our anti-terrorism measures in the run-up to Christmas," said George Oliver, spokesman for Durham Constabulary. "There has been an increase in the public appearance of armed officers over the past few weeks along certain routes.

"Naturally, security for the principals in the election has to be taken seriously and it has been heightened in recent weeks because of the [terrorist] problems that have happened across the country."

Extra police officers were on duty at many of the country's 45,000 polling stations, and covert surveillance operations were carried out, along with bomb searches, 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.

Any motorway, railway and airport closures will have added impact as all routes are expected to be clogged with people travelling for the Bank Holiday weekend.

There is also a precedent for a post-election hit. The night after John Major's victory in the 1992 general election, terrorists carried out two massive bomb blasts - in the City of London and at the southern end of the M1. In the Baltic Exchange attack, the IRA detonated a massive car bomb in the heart of the City, killing three and injuring 91. The bomb at Staples Corner injured no one but caused extensive damage.

A spokesman for the West Midlands force, which has had to cope with several of the recent coded telephone warnings, said: "The pattern suggests that Friday is a more likely target than polling day. A Bank Holiday weekend on the first day of a new government is a choice target. With this in mind there are a number of security operations going on."

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, some warning of genuine devices, some merely hoaxes.

Polling stations were scoured for explosive devices ahead of opening at 7am, additional police officers were on guard and voters faced the prospect of being searched.

Last week, the Home Office sent electoral returning officers unprecedented advice on how to minimise disruption in the event of bomb threats. Similar advice went to officials in the Scottish and Ulster constituencies. The party leaders and other prominent politicians were all closely shadowed yesterday by armed, plain-clothes officers.