THE letters - almost a thousand - that have poured into Tony Blair's Westminster office over the past week have a special eloquence no politician can ever quite capture. Blair, Labour's home affairs spokesman, spoke in Wellingborough nine days ago of teaching 'the value of what is right and wrong' and warned of 'moral chaos'. He struck a chord with many people.

From Gloucestershire: 'I'm just a member of the usually silent majority and a mum and like millions of others am sickened by our society today. Having heard you talking about the subject of young offenders, although I'm a lifelong Tory I feel you have the right ideas. We have to get the youngsters long before they are teenagers to instil in them discipline, respect and the knowledge of telling right from wrong . . .'

From Surrey: 'I have two granddaughters, 10 and 13, and really do wonder what sort of country will they have to grow up in.' From Yorkshire comes a sideswipe at the Prime Minister's remark on crime that we should 'condemn a little more and understand a little less': 'What a blessed relief to hear your thoughts . . . it's impossible to have too much understanding. We want more and more and more again . . .' From the Midlands, a retired Army officer's wife writes that teenage criminals should be locked up 'despite the moans that are being heard from the do-gooding fraternity' but she also wants humane and well-staffed institutions with properly supervised work, study and relaxation.

And from County Durham an elegiac recollection of the early Fifties from a man whose family over the past seven years has suffered two burglaries 'which have left permanent scars', two thefts from cars and one theft of a car. 'I can vividly remember . . . when you called on friends and walked straight into the house because the front door was never locked even on a dark winter evening . . . We would be out all day during the summer holidays returning home for meals . . . Parents were not in fear of something of happening to us. Can you imagine responsible parents allowing children to play in the woods alone today? We had love, the family, particularly the strong role of grandparents, respect for our neighbours and a sense of community and discipline . . .'

This is not an ordinary postbag for a politician to receive after a speech and a couple of radio interviews, even on a subject as salient as crime. Blair is a lawyer - though, unlike Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary - not a specialist in criminal law. He is a practising Christian, though he wears his religious beliefs lightly. He has three young children, and manages, more often than many of his fellow politicians, to get home at night to see them. All of which lends authority to his comments about responsibility and the family.

But what probably evoked such a response from ordinary people is that he seemed to have an idea, which is rare in British politics today. Blair is using what sounds, for a Labour politician, novel language. In our interview last week, for example, he inverted the familiar language of rights: 'People have a right to go about their business unmolested and a right not to have their homes broken into and not to be attacked and assaulted. That is an invasion of civil liberties when that happens and it is our duty to stand up for them and protect them and deal adequately with people that are engaging in this kind of anti-social conduct.'

But, in virtually the same breath, he added: 'You don't need a PhD in sociology, merely a degree of common sense, to understand that if kids are growing up without hope or opportunity, with poor education, poor housing, family breakdown, while it doesn't excuse it in any way you are more likely to have problems of criminal behaviour.'

And this is where the idea comes in. His rubric 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' stems from a wider notion of community, which he defined in his Wellingborough speech: 'The relationship . . . between people and the society in which they live, one that is based on responsibilities as well as rights, on obligations as well as entitlements . . . We are not just buyers or sellers in some market place or individuals set in isolation but we are members of a community that owe obligation to others as well as ourselves and that depend on others to succeed.'

BLAIR argues that what he is saying is not entirely new. First, he insists that speeches on law and order by Labour politicians of the Attlee period were notably tough on individual responsibility. Second, he has been writing and saying many of these things since becoming shadow Home Secretary - even if up to two weeks ago Labour was getting, in Blair's words, 'two men and a dog' at its press conferences on crime. Finally, some of the ideas on the relationship between individual and community were in speeches he made as shadow Employment Secretary as early as 1990.

But the public response calls into question the assumption common among Tories that crime for Labour is like the NHS for the Tories; the more it becomes an issue the more damage it inflicts on the party. Blair says that much of the pressure to speak out has come from MPs and activists on his side - not least because Labour supporters, for example in inner cities, are so often the victims of crime. In any case, so dominant is the issue in voters' minds that he could scarcely ignore it even if he wanted to: 'Two people came into my surgery the week before last whose lives have been made hell by a group of hooligan 18- or 19-year-olds who are virtually terrorising local people. I can't tell them we are going to wait until we can have a better society for them to be protected.'

He added: 'There is a school in my constituency which is for kids who have committed serious criminal offences, and a very large proportion of those have been sexually abused in childhood. And that's terrible. But if you don't secure them some poor person who has never done any harm to anyone is going to find their life ruined. Although I passionately believe in trying to rehabilitate young offenders, to divert them from a path of crime, these people who come into my surgery have got to be helped. And my generation sees no inconsistency in dealing with both kinds of problems.'

The generational point is an interesting one, for two reasons. Born in 1953, and a student at Oxford in the Seventies - where he played in a rock band - Blair missed collecting some of the heaviest Sixties baggage. Of Sixties liberalism, he says cautiously: 'There was perhaps a feeling that if there was an absence of guidance for people they would come naturally to the right conclusion - and at times a feeling that the only problem that existed for people was the problems that society had given to them.' Guidance at home and school is important, he argues, and it does not depend exclusively on material prosperity. 'A child brought up in a stable and loving family that is also poor is . . . less likely to go wrong than a child brought up in an unstable, unloving family that happens to be rich.'

The second point about Blair's age is that he came to political maturity when Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher were using their period of opposition to hammer out a new Tory programme. They set a new ideological compass and the policies followed.

And Blair believes that he has an ideological compass quite distinct from the Tories. The individual's responsibility to the community is matched by the community's to the individual, he argues. 'The two great fundamentalist views of this century were either that everything can be encapsulated in society or within the state, or the view of the Conservatives, certainly of the Conservative right, that everything is simply down to the individual and you do whatever you do on your own.'

Blair rejects both. Parents, for example, have an overriding responsibility to inculcate values - a word he uses a lot - in their children. But he adds: 'Whether you are able to do that is in part dependent on whether it is reinforced by a decent education system, whether you can make a decent living yourself, whether the child is growing up believing he's got a decent stake in society.'

The policies follow. For example, he will contest the proposals that Kenneth Clarke will unveil this week for a handful of new secure approved schools for persistent teenage offenders - but not on the grounds that such offenders should not be locked up. Instead he argues that if the Government carried out its promise to expand local authority secure accommodation, offenders could be detained closer to family and home. He argued last week that the Crown Prosecution Service should be obliged to explain to victims why it has dropped a prosecution. He has even called, along with some on the Tory right, for clarification of the 1991 Criminal Justice Act to ensure that the previous convictions of persistent offenders can be taken into account when sentences are handed down.

But he also argues: 'It is no use having high levels of truancy, cutting drug abuse projects, cutting employment and training places, changing benefit rules so that some young people are left without a job or benefit, and then thinking that's irrelevant to the question of juvenile crime.'

But is this not merely a way of satisfying Labour's notorious addiction to unaffordable public expenditure? 'I think the problem more for Labour in the past is the notion you simply want to tax people for its own sake: what's important, as Gordon Brown (the shadow Chancellor) has been saying, is that we don't tax for its own sake and we don't spend for its own sake; we raise taxes and spend on certain things that have a benefit for ourselves as individuals in the community.'

Blair must know that it is high-risk to go on the offensive on crime. Apart from anything else he is up against, in Clarke, the most formidable operator in the Cabinet. But what he is saying also has an importance that goes beyond the immediate issue of crime, high on the political agenda as it now is. It may yet prove to be the most graphic way of defining a nascent ideology for Labour in the 1990s.

(Photograph omitted)