Election 1997: Come this way for a vague new world

Blair turns on the passion to make up for modest policies.
When Tony Blair came to Crawley, they barely noticed in PoundCrazy. Out in the square he gathered his crowd, and stepped down from his great grey bus, but in the shop, among the badly cast plastic ani-mals and the six-packs of luminous orangeade, there were more material needs to be satisfied. The eyes of plump young mothers traversed the aisles. Hands weighed and tested; leggings strained. And worn purses opened, slowly, to release single pound coins.

Only the tattooed security guards were watching Mr Blair. He was standing right in front of the square's other two clearance stores, and he was smiling. "Just another couple of weeks to go," he said, "And then, let's hope... a new Labour government, a new future for this country." He began a walkabout. He borrowed pens, told jokes, said "yeah, sure" and "y'know" in a drawling class-free accent. And his easy manner seemed, like the welcome pressing in on him, to take confidence from the drabness all around. Crawley is a Conservative seat in their south-eastern heartland; it has Gatwick airport close by and a history of high employment; yet its main square was crumbling, filling with the new poor. Labour would do better.

The problem was, up to last Tuesday Mr Blair had offered precious little to the kind of people who rummage in the baskets at PoundCrazy. Throughout the campaign, and throughout New Labour's life before the campaign, the party had grown ever more accepting, it seemed, of the brutish social battlefield bequeathed by the Tories. The free market was good, taxes were bad, the Tory press was to be placated; any aid to the poor would whisper against these mantras.

Crawley heard nothing to the contrary. Labour was still 20 per cent ahead in the polls. Mr Blair, harried at times the week before, now listed his small plans for government patiently, with neat back-and-forth gesticulations, as if tidying a desk in Downing Street. Then he beamed again, and took the motorway to Sussex University.

This visit was trickier. The sun was gentle on the South Downs, but when the Blair bus came rumbling the students left their lawns and filled the hall. By Sussex tradition, they carried banners and asked questions about nuclear disarmament. For an hour Mr Blair parried, his hands jumpy on the podium, his voice jumping an octave in search of empathy. "I know the election is a bit of a turn-off," he said, early on, "Well... I think you should vote..." He groped for a reason. "I really do think this: don't criticise the government if you don't vote in a democracy." Luckily no one asked about lack of choice.

Until a certain Alex Parsons-Moore. "Do you see your party," he crisply asked, "as revisionary socialists or caring conservatives?"

Mr Blair saw the bait, and rose to it: "What values do we hold in the Labour Party? A fair deal for ordinary people. Getting on by merit rather than privilege. Tolerance and respect. They are values." More assertions burst out: on the individual's need for community, the superiority of public services over consumer choice, the evils of increasing inequality. Labour and the Conservatives had been on opposite sides of these issues "since time immemorial", Mr Blair concluded. A whiff of Sussex past floated in the hall.

The Labour leader had his theme. In Southampton the next day, he tested it further. "If all we have is what we own, not what we share, we are all losers," he said; his government would "treat poverty and unemployment not as problems we shut out or ignore, but as intolerable." The applause crashed around the hot cinema. Better than 1968, this sounded like 1945.

In their smooth, slim suits, even Mr Blair's advisers were delighted: the speech would sound great on the news. Their leader, they let it be known, had stayed up late to hone his angry phrases. On Thursday, at a rally in Edinburgh, he tried them again. Hereditary peers would be abolished, a Scottish parliament would be proposed with tax-raising powers, Scottish Water would be taken "back into local hands" - promises barely spoken in the campaign poured from the stage. For the climax, Mr Blair stepped from behind his podium, tie swinging, to say what he believed. He grasped at the air for abstractions, stuck his hands on his hips, and when his throat microphone failed, outlined his vision of "the Decent Society" by shouting.

One caveat to all this, however, remained unspoken. There were no new policies. Since Tuesday, Mr Blair had been asking his listeners to make a leap of faith: to believe that his modest reforms - smaller class sizes, a windfall tax on privatised utilities - might add up, in time, to a transformation of British society. Having refused to promise large and tangible changes for years, to gain credibility with a sceptical press and public, he now needed to promise intangibles to win their enthusiasm.

Yet, as Mr Blair set out his mild utopia last week, the very landscape he was criss-crossing seemed to deny the possibility of its attainment. In Southampton, where he spoke about poverty, the old docks glittered with bobbing speedboats. At St Thomas's Hospital in south London, where he spoke of free health care for all and was mobbed by jubilant nurses, the main entrance toilets were foul, with spilled tissues and excrement on the walls.

In Monmouth in south Wales, on Wednesday's burning afternoon, an elderly man waited for Mr Blair with a placard that read, "Market Forces Mean Misery For The Millions Of Us". This squinting man had fought in the Second World War, had refused orders to shoot Indian mutineers in 1947, had stood with his placard in the town square for three hours every Saturday since the campaign began. Did he believe Labour would help the poor? "We're going to have to make them."