Harriet Harman's pink bus hits the campaign trail

media captionHarriet Harman: "It's certainly eye-catching"

Harriet Harman has hit the campaign trail in her pink battle van - amid a storm of ridicule on social media.

Labour's deputy leader believes the van will help the party connect with women who did not vote in 2010.

But Twitter users have attacked it as "patronising" and "sexist".

Ms Harman said she "signed-off" on the "eye-catching" colour scheme for the minibus, which will tour 70 constituencies across the UK in the run up to May's general election.

The bus made its first campaign stop at an Asda supermarket in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, where Ms Harman and shadow minister for women and equalities Gloria De Piero chatted to shoppers and had a cup of tea with some of the store's female workers.

'Silly and patronising'

Her chat was interrupted by a man who said he did not think it was right that men were being excluded from the conversation, but Ms Harman said the women told him to "shove off" because "they wanted to talk to us and they wanted us to listen".

Ms Harman was also harangued by a man wearing a T-shirt which read This Is What A Victim Of Feminism Looks Like.

Opinion about the van among shoppers in Stevenage was mixed.

Nicola Dinnage from Stevenage, said: "I think it's silly and I think it's patronising."

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image captionHarriet Harman and Gloria De Piero arrive in Stevenage
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Beb Metcalfe from Welwyn, said: "I think it's good because if it gets it noticed and everybody votes...women, men, whatever...it's all good."

But Beverley Gould, from Knebworth, said it is "very patronising", adding that she has not voted in the last two or three general elections "because none of them represent me".

Earlier, Ms Harman defended the bus's pink colour scheme, telling ITV's Good Morning Britain: "The reason why it has to be eye-catching is that there is a big hole in our democratic politics. In 2010 at the last general election 9.1 million women didn't vote and that's because they just don't think that politicians have any interest in their lives."

She said the message she wanted to get across to women was: "Use your vote, use your voice because politics is too important to be left to only men voting."

She also revealed that the 16-seat minibus would sometimes be driven by a man, adding that there was a team of three drivers, two female and one male.

"Rest assured, I won't be driving it," she added.

Asked by The Huffington Post if the pink colour scheme was patronising, she said: "Well it doesn't have big eyelashes on the front. We don't care. Actually it's got to look like itself. Because it's new; it's different."

Labour claims the "Woman to Woman" bus tour is the first political campaign aimed specifically at women.

But Twitter users have poured scorn on it and shared spoof pictures comparing the van to a Barbie doll toy and the car in the ads for car insurance company Sheila's Wheels.

And female van drivers interviewed by BBC Newsbeat gave the van a cool reception, with one saying "It's a bit patronising and seems like a bit of a cop out".

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There was some debate at the launch of the campaign on Tuesday about whether the van was, in fact, pink.

"Is it not magenta or something?" joked Ms Harman, adding: "It is a very nice looking bus... it is the correct colour. This is a One Nation Labour colour."

She said that while Labour would be highlighting policies on issues such as childcare and domestic violence, David Cameron and the Conservatives had nothing to offer female voters.

But the Conservatives joined in with the social media criticism of the campaign.

"Getting Harriet Harman to drive around the country in a pink van to try and attract the female vote is as patronising as it gets," said backbench MP Caroline Dinenage,

"This is clearly just another divisive gimmick that the electorate will see through".

And the Lib Dems said "women voters won't forget Labour's car crash record on the economy just because Harriet Harman turns up in a pink van".

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