Election '97: Labour flexes its new pecs

The Labour roadshow is on again. Paul Routledge joins the Great Leader and a few feathered friends for the very first lap
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Indy Politics
For Tony Blair, it is a 9,000-mile odyssey that should end in Downing Street, an event of high seriousness. But it started out as high farce. "This is the first time we weren't able to trivialise events," bleated a tabloid veteran. He was speaking of the menagerie of chickens, two bears, a fox and the rhino that turned out for the Labour leader's first day on the election campaign trail, and had brought some much needed comic relief to a sleazy campaign.

The chicken idea was imported from the United States. Joe Klein, author of Primary Colours who is reporting from the Blair battlebus, recalled Chicken George - the forerunner of Chicken Tony - who was set up to annoy George Bush in 1992 and also "got a lot of ink". Klein already detects parallels with the Clinton campaign. After Blair's first "Meet the People" gathering in Kidsgrove, Staffordshire, he observed: "It's similar. I don't know if it works here, but the audience seemed to buy it. Clinton is more eager to please than give an answer."

That must be the holding verdict four days into the campaign proper. Blair's launch of the manifesto at the Institute of Civil Engineers, off Whitehall, was a crowded affair but pitched discreetly below the trium- phant and disastrous Sheffield rally of 1992. New Labour, new modesty. Blair's face was set in a mask of gritty determination. John Prescott had a face like a setpot, as my grandmother would have said. Gordon Brown allowed himself a smile.

The election would be about trust said The Great Leader (TGL). It already is. Trust the battlebus to set off late. Trust the traffic to hold up the leader's majestic progress. Trust the committed and the frankly curious to turn up at Whiteley's shopping centre in Bayswater, his first stop. The emphasis here was on informality. An informal group of Labour cheerleaders greeted Blair, while the media were penned behind an informal rope barrier.

The leader signed copies of the manifesto, and Georgina Davenport, aged 11, was thrilled. "I like him," she said. Why? "Because he's famous." Local government officer Aaron Cahill got his copy to add to his collection of election kitsch. How did he know TGL would be there? (The leader's movements are kept as secret as possible to avoid pre-emptive strikes by Chicken Blair.) "I just heard about it," he confessed. Plainly, local party people are tipped off in advance to make sure there is a good leavening of supporters in the crowd.

Back on the bus. The windows are opaque, you cannot see in. The leader could be in our bus, or the one behind. In fact, he is in a helicopter clattering high above the traffic jams. We both come down to earth at Stansted airport to take a chartered jet to Edinburgh. Destination: Stirling, where Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, is defending a notional majority of 236 votes in a redrawn constituency where Labour needs a swing of only 0.3 per cent.

The Great Leader's walkabout in Stirling was amiable but brief, lasting little over 15 minutes. He was running an hour behind schedule, and the shops in Port Street were closing by the time he began shaking hands. A keen wind scythed through the crowd, around 300 strong. One woman with a small boy on her shoul-der instructed the infant: "Shout 'boo!'" A Conservative? "No! I'm a nationalist," was the shocked reply.

On the fringes of the swirl around the leader, Chicken Tony jumped up and down brandishing a placard with the legend: "Answer the West Lothian Question." The chicken's face was split, the victim of a young woman who tore off his mask and ran away. Police retrieved it, but muttered: "We have a public order issue here. Move on."

It might be thought this was the stuff of fantasy politics, but it got better. An excitable young Tory activist, Alastair Orr, insisted: "We are not going down. Michael Forsyth will be back with a four-figure majority." This was too good to miss. Your correspondent placed a pounds 10 bet with him right there in the street. Payment due on 2 May, Mr Orr.

But there was no hostility to TGL. Hands were pressed into his as hail began to fall. Mrs Wilma Hunter, 46, was ecstatic. "It's fantastic," she enthused. What is? "What's fantastic is his politics, what he's going to do for this country: a fair distribution of wealth, employment particularly for young people."

But Mrs Hunter also turns out to be a local government officer, prompting the question: "Are all town hall staff given the day off when there's a whisper that TGL may be in town?" Blair stopped Gail Miller, a mother with twins asleep in a pushchair. How old are they? Eight months, she replied. And Blair comes over all fatherly. Mrs Miller might not vote Labour, however. Her husband, Ronald, a business manager, will certainly not. "We're Thatcher's children," he grinned. Quite so.

Labour's caravan swept on to Glasgow, where the leader stayed in the penthouse Blair Suite of the Marriott Hotel, naturally. Next morning, he took on the notoriously awkward Scottish media. In the Scotsman that morning, Blair had made the striking comparison between a devolved Scottish parliament and the smallest English parish council, and that really got them going.

This press corps gave him a much harder time than the grandees of the political lobby of the day before. On a previous visit north of the border Blair had angrily put down the Scots press pack as "unreconstructed wankers". On this day, he had to explain the inexplicable. Why is it that Labour wants the Scots to have their own parliament, with income tax-raising powers, but promises to veto any attempt to make use of these powers before the year 2002?

"Simple," says TGL as if he were talking to simpletons. "Having a power is not the same as using a power. There is a power at Westminster for the Chancellor to raise taxes. The fact that we are not going to use that power to raise the basic rate or the top rate of income tax doesn't mean to say that power should not exist. The existence of a power doesn't mean you have to use it."

Is that clear? Good. He gave the same answer to the same question differently phrased, more than half a dozen times. The Scots grew restive not least with what they called the "kindergarten" grasp of the devolution issue exhibited by the metropolitan press. Nobody was really satisfied and the suspicion remains that TGL does not want a Scots parliament to put up taxes. Ever. But this is the only policy he inherited from John Smith that he cannot jettison. So it has to be neutered.

To Manchester now, for another bus ride to Staffordshire Moorlands constituency. Here, so the spin doctors tell us, the real difference between TGL and John Major will be revealed. While Major appears in a million-pound disciples- only extravaganza at the Albert Hall in the evening, Blair preaches to the unconverted in Kidsgrove.

More than 300 tickets have been allocated to "Tory waverers" and local people who phoned up a telephone hotline. Only a minority of the audience would be Labour supporters. This is the real thing, the spin doctors argued, that pumps the adrenaline through tough Tony: getting out there, spreading the gospel to unbelievers in an overheated hall.

It was as prosaic as it actually promised to be. Blair expertly fielded 18 questions, in batches of three, of which he had no foreknowledge. Addressing the crowded hall, he took off his jacket and talked like a professional compere. About half of those who put questions wanted more money for this or that: single mothers, school buildings, housing, free dental and eye care, jobs for young people, the National Health Service, multiple sclerosis sufferers, playing fields, roads, new businesses and students.

Blair gave them nothing beyond the broad brushstrokes of the manifesto. To a man complaining about the inequities of the Child Support Agency he insisted: "I can't tell you I can do it all, because I can't. We have to work within the financial constraints that are there." At least it is honest, and it is a mantra that we will hear again and again. He was applauded twice - first for warning what a fifth term of Tory government would mean, and then for saying: "If I had pounds 60m to spend, it would not be on the royal yacht."

As he left the hall TGL was virtually mobbed by men and women shouting "Tony" who wanted to shake his hand. In Stirling, they had chanted: "TO- NY, TO-NY." It is hard to imagine the voters calling out "John, John" and jostling each other simply to touch the Prime Minister. Perhaps it is a watershed, after all.