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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 March 2005, 17:47 GMT
Fans greet the Kennedy 'legend'
Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter

Charles Kennedy
The "legend" Kennedy: Charles, not John F
Liberal Democrats aren't really meant to get mobbed. Especially in places like Harrogate, for which the term "genteel" could have been invented.

But there was a mob of sorts awaiting Charles Kennedy as he attempted to stage a walkabout in the Yorkshire spa town, which is playing host to his party's spring conference.

A luxury double decker bus had been commandeered to transport Mr Kennedy and the press the few hundred yards from the conference centre to the town centre.

And no sooner had he stepped off it than the Lib Dem leader was surrounded by, if not exactly adoring fans, then young people with a fine sense of irony.

Labour 'mob'

"He's a legend," cried one teenage boy.

"He's better than Tony Blair."

"What are the Liberal Democrats?" asked another.

Then, as the media scrum rolled down the street, another mob appeared - an angry mob waving home-made placards and trying to muscle in on Mr Kennedy's photo opportunity, with chants of "Lib Dems, criminals friends!"

The placards being waved by this crowd were shorn of party branding and magic markered with slogans such as "soft on crime" and "soft on yobs".

The idea was, presumably, to make it look like a spontaneous protest by concerned young citizens, rather than Labour activists bussed in for the occasion.

I think Tony Blair is losing his grip
Lib Dem supporter Tom Davis

And those waving the placards proved alarmingly adept at spinning their way out of awkward questions.

"Our political affiliations are immaterial," said one, who did not want to give his name.

"We are just angry about Liberal Democrat policies on crime," said another.

They were, they finally admitted, politics students from Leeds University. And Labour Party members.

'Political hope'

The protest, they insisted, was their own idea.

They didn't mention whose idea it was to hire a poster van to tour the town with the headline "criminal stupidity" over a newspaper cutting about Mr Kennedy's proposals to give the vote to people in prison.

The Lib Dems, for their part, could hardly disguise their glee at all of this Labour attention.

"I think it is interesting that we are seeing this kind of mindless behaviour from the Labour Party," said Mr Kennedy, taking refuge from the mob in a church.

It showed that the Lib Dems are a "big threat to them," he added.

"They are complaining about us being soft on yobs when they are behaving like yobs themselves," added party chairman Simon Hughes.

"If you hadn't have been here, I would have dealt with them more appropriately," said local Lib Dem MP, and former comprehensive school head, Phil Willis.

The voters of Harrogate seemed warmly disposed towards Mr Kennedy, largely because he wasn't Tony Blair.

"He is my main political hope," said 18-year-old Adam Graham, after shaking Mr Kennedy's hands.

"I think Tony Blair is losing his grip," said his friend Tom Davis.

"I am undecided. I voted Tory last time but I like the Liberal Democrats' policies on pensions," said John Suddaby, of Gainsborough.

Mr Kennedy meanwhile had retreated to the safer environs of the International Conference Centre, where a long line of party members were waiting to have their photo taken with him.




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