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Election `97: `Pinch me - I can't believe they've gone'

Polly Toynbee and Yvette Cooper, commentator and new MP, relive the emotion of a night to remember
Everyone suddenly burst out honking. It kept happening all day, not just outside Downing Street and in Trafalgar Square, but even on the other side of London in the Mile End Road. Honking the old government out and the new one in.

"Pinch me, pinch me. I can't believe they've gone!" said a man among the crowds pressed up against the police barricades outside Downing Street. Early morning, up all night, they came from everywhere.

"If I live to be 100 there'll never be another day like it!"said Mary Thorowgood, 77 who brought a red rose for Blair and a letter to thrust into his hand if she got the chance.

She was there very early to get her place at the front waiting to jeer at Major as he went and whoop for joy as Blair swept in. "I remember 1945 as if it was yesterday. But this is better!"she exclaimed.

Peter Bradshaw had rushed all the way down the motorway from Liverpool. "I was so excited I had to be here. Jumped in the car last night and drove like hell."

Nothing succeeds like success. Everywhere I went people were grinning - and everyone was Labour. Hard to find anyone admitting they had ever voted anything else. Did I have the only cab driver in history who was Labour? They might be a notoriously right wing breed - but not mine, not today. Everyone was beaming Labour.

Some, though, were repentent. 18 year old Natalie Richardson, minding the souvenir stand on the corner of Whitehall confessed: "I didn't vote. Didn't see the point."

But she stayed up to watch the results and how did she feel? "It's a blinder. Bloody marvellous. I really think he'll get jobs for school leavers. Yeah, I should have voted."

One who did was John Hyndman, Whitehall street cleaner, a man in his 30s with a hair lip, cleft palate and a lousy job. "I never voted before. But Labour will help people like me."

"I love him, oh I love him. I want to give him a big kiss! Oh I do!" shouted Jonathan Rickards from Shrewsbury."Next to him was a 66-year- old who'd almost died while waiting six months for heart surgery while the person in the next bed waited only 10 days, patient of a privileged GP fund-holder. "I had to be here to see Major go with my own eyes, " he said.

Pressing up against the monstrous great gates Mrs Thatcher erected during her reign, one person remembered that Labour had promised to tear them down - a good opening gesture for the Blair years.

It had been a long wait since dawn in the bright sun, everyone buzzing with the thrill of history. They spoke of 1945, of 1906. Someone said it felt like the Berlin wall coming down, another that it was like Nelson Mandela's release. High on euphoria, no hyperbole was enough. But many said they never expected this day. "After last time, I never believed the polls. I thought we'd lose again."

"I'll admit it, at first I was iffy about Blair," said a building worker in a singlet. "I couldn't get enthusiastic. I was one that said they're all the same. Nearly didn't vote. But of course they're not the bloody same."

What were they hoping for? Great things. Social justice, Blair's decent society, fairness, hope, an end to meanness. Were they hoping for too much? No, no, they all said, with one voice.

"I know it'll take a long time. It'll be hard. He can't do everything now," said Jim Moor, a care worker from East London. "It may take years, but he'll look after the poor and the working class. I trust him."

Among the the media and the analysts, those who sifted through every speech of Blair's campaign, there had built up a tide of cynicism. But not among these people. They were bowled over by his overnight speeches on television: men and women said they'd wept. They believe in his humility, his emotion, his radical passion.

But could anyone be as good as they need him to be? Can New Labour break the age-old cycle of political illusion and disillusion, as certain as boom and bust in the economy? Today there were only true believers. Tomorrow is another day.