Brown launches Labour's local election campaign on safe ground

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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman walked across a playing field, flanked by a policeman on one side and a policewoman with a bicycle on the other. "It looks like he is under arrest," quipped one onlooker.

Mr Brown gave a prime ministerial wave, but two boys carried on with their ball game, oblivious to the high-profile visit. The welcome inside the Bedwell Community Centre in Stevenage was much warmer: applause and handshakes all round as Mr Brown swiftly worked the room.

He was there to launch Labour's campaign for what the party admits will be "a difficult set" of local authority elections in England and Wales on 1 May – Mr Brown's first as party leader. But yesterday he was on safe territory: Stevenage is one of only two Labour-run councils in the South-east outside London and the party has such a big majority it is unlikely to lose power.

Stevenage was hailed by Mr Brown as an example to the rest of the country, notably for its work on neighbourhood policing and combating antisocial behaviour by giving bored teenagers community facilities to keep them occupied. He hailed the "local heroes" who had worked out do-it-yourself solutions to help youngsters.

He listened intently as he sat down at two tables in the room to listen to the concerns of locals, flanked again by police community support officers. For once, this was a visit on which his security guards could relax.

The residents were on their best behaviour and their demands were modest: a bigger skateboarding park to keep the youngsters busy. Mr Brown took out a pen and paper and made a note.

Although the Prime Minister was in listening mode, he also did a fair amount of talking. "Do you think that [a skate park] would keep people out of trouble?" "What are the other things than should be done?" "What is the one thing that has made a difference?" "Teenage vandalism has gone down, has it?" "You have cut criminal damage by 17 per cent. Robbery down 20 per cent. That must be the work you are doing having an effect." "We want every school to be a good school." No controversy there.

His toughest question was a hint of problems on the jobs front. Mr Brown deployed his new buzzword about everyone having a "talent" and went into his Commons scattergun mode. "We have quadrupled the number of apprentices. We want to double it again," he said.

Labour will fight the elections on local issues such as neighbourhood policing and Mr Brown pledged that from next month, every community will have its own police team on the beat, contactable by mobile phone.

But Labour insiders fear that the elections will be overshadowed by the gathering economic gloom. Although Labour did badly when 3,000 of the 4,500 seats up for grabs were last fought in 2004, party officials will be relieved to stand still and fear further losses.

Three opinion polls since the Budget have shown the Tories with leads of up to 16 points. Privately, Labour sources admit the Budget highlighted the global downturn without giving people much sense of what the Government would do to help them survive the storm.

Mr Brown emphasised that Labour was on the side of "hard-working families" but admitted the elections were taking place in "difficult circumstances".

Outside the centre, people were not so sure. "Everyone has got poorer in the last few years," one woman said. "Did I vote Labour last time? I can't remember."