I'll accentuate the positive, promises Blair

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As positive messages go, you could argue that "Britain Deserves Better" is a little on the negative side.

But there was nothing negative about its delivery yesterday at the start of a Labour poster campaign aimed at dragging the election contest out of the mire of sleaze.

First, there was the location: 18th-century Chilston Park Country House Hotel in Len-ham, Kent, where rooms cost up to pounds 210 a night. It was once owned by Thomas Best, a former Tory MP, but is more likely to go down in history as the place where Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence, the rock star, got together behind Bob Geldof's back.

Next, there was the presentation. More than 200 local party supporters and their children were brought together on the hotel's lawns, cheering wildly as Tony Blair arrived to the pop song "Things Can Only Get Better". It was an entrance of which the boxer Nigel Benn would have been proud.

Finally, there were the performances. Mr Blair and his deputy, John Prescott, bursting with enthusiasm, said Labour wanted to raise the tone of the campaign, although Mr Prescott couldn't resist cracking a joke about John Major's inability to bring errant Tories to heel.

"He's gone off to the Happy Eater today," said Mr Prescott. "That's the only place where anyone will take his orders."

Mr Blair said the posters represented the beginning of a cleaner campaign.

"Today is more than the launch of a poster campaign," he said. "It is an attempt to put some life and energy into a campaign mired in Tory sleaze. Sleaze may hurt the Tories but it hurts politics too."

Surrounded by children wearing T-shirts bearing the campaign slogan, he spelled out the areas where he believed the country deserved better: the economy; the health service; education; employment; old age and safer streets.

"I have issued instructions that all our new posters between now and 1 May, election day, must be positive," he said. "They will tell the country how we can make Britain better.

"They won't be running our opponents ragged. They won't be decrying them. They won't be engaged in personality politics. They will be saying what we will be doing to make out country better. It is time to rise above the sleaze that has characterised this election campaign so far."

The party faithful enjoyed it, although one or two felt a little uncomfortable with the location and their party's slicker image. "It makes me feel a little nervous wondering what some old Labour supporters would make of all this," said David Nicholls, 41, a company director from West Malling, Kent.

"On the whole, I think it's good that the party doesn't feel embarrassed by holding functions at this kind of place any more."

But his mother, Helen, 67, wondered what her late father would have made of it all.

"He was a union man from 1945 onwards," she said. "I wish he could have been here to see this. I'm not sure how he would have reacted. I hope he would have approved."

Mr Blair takes his campaign on the road today with the unveiling of five campaign battle buses leased at a cost of pounds 70,500.

They will take him and a huge entourage of journalists to more than 60 towns and cities across Britain. The Labour leader's bus is equipped with state of the art communications, a kitchen and an office.

It will also feature a retractable platform on which he will deliver speeches and hold question-and-answer sessions with the public. The whole operation has been financed by charging journalists pounds 7,500 each for a ticket.

Aides say Mr Blair, who they consider to be their most potent weapon against Mr Major, will concentrate speeches on what he calls his "Three R's": Reminding people of the Tories' record; Reassuring people that New labour is for real; and explaining the Rewards that voting Labour will bring.

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