FOR Rose Stubbs, her first venture into political activism was not a success. But then, one setback in more than 40 years is not such a bad record.

Ever since that fateful campaign, when naval hero Commander John Kerans won Hartlepool for the Conservatives, in 1959, Rose has been helping Labour candidates to victory.

At the age of 74, the last days before the election still saw her spending 12 hours a day delivering leaflets, knocking on doors and planning for victory.

And on Thursday night, there was no keeping her away from the finale when the result was declared at the Mill House Leisure Centre.

"I believe in the Labour Party. It has always been in my household, my father taught us about socialism. Every time there is an election, we go out and do our best," she said.

Rose joined the party at 18 and is the longest-serving member of the St Hilda's branch.

"I used to pay threepence a week in membership. The man who collected it used to have an old coat with deep pockets in, but it is all direct debit now."

And, when Peter Mandelson made his fashionably late entrance to the count, just 20 minutes before the result was declared, the first embrace was reserved for Rose.

She said: "It made my night, that. He will make us a great MP. I was apprehensive at the beginning but when I saw him I started to relax."

Rose need not have worried. From the start it was clear that, despite having the distinction of resigning twice from the Cabinet in one Parliament, Mandelson had retained his constituents' support.

Predictions of a close contest turned out to be far wide of the mark, as the ballot papers stacked up on the table marked Mandelson, while his rivals trailed well behind.

LibDem Nigel Boddy sensed the outcome and, two hours before the result, was declared confessed that coming second was his main objective.

In the end, he fell 2,000 votes short of even that, but a bigger blow was reserved for Tory Gus Robinson, who found it hard to conceal his disappointment at failing to dent the Labour majority.

"I really do believe that I was the right man to do the job," he told the Labour-dominated crowd of about 100 at the leisure centre.

But, while Socialist Labour candidate Arthur Scargill insisted the fight would go on, Mr Mandelson was in no doubt that the result was a victory of New Labour over Old.

And, relaxing in the size of his majority, his biggest worry was making sure the Hartlepool sign on one side of the hall was in camera shot as he lined up for a series of interviews.

He may have lost a national platform, but, as he was driven away to the post-result party in the town's sports bar, the sultan of spin had a few words for his supporters in the town.

"I have been sustained, day in day out, during this entire time, by the people of Hartlepool, who have been absolutely brilliant."