Blair defines his socialist vision

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TONY BLAIR, the Shadow Home Secretary and widely tipped contender for the Labour leadership, emerged from self-imposed silence yesterday to call for his party to 'rebuild our nation as a strong and active society'.

Mr Blair used a wide-ranging speech to a conference on crime and the breakdown of the family to define a distinctive vision for the left which will underpin his campaign to succeed John Smith in July and, if he wins, to contest the general election after that.

Mr Blair's hopes were boosted last night by an ICM/Guardian poll which showed voters giving him a clear lead. Among Labour supporters Mr Blair was favoured by 31 per cent, 9 points ahead of John Prescott. Gordon Brown and Margaret Beckett had 13 per cent and Robin Cook 9 per cent.

Mr Blair linked an attack on Thatcherism for bequeathing a 'social fabric ripped apart at the seams' with an effort to construct a philosophy through which Labour would restore social values to 'liberate individual potential'.

He said Britain needed to abandon the 'narrow and selfish individualism' of the present and the 'old notions of state control'.

Labour's national executive is expected to decide tomorrow that the leadership contest should be completed in the summer, rather than deferring it until October.

There is continuing uncertainty and tension within the party over how many candidates will run. Robin Cook, the Trade and Industry spokesman, is assessing support among centre-left MPs, while there are conflicting views on whether Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor, will stand down in favour of his friend and fellow moderniser Mr Blair. The Brown camp argued that the poll, taken at the weekend, does not reflect the impact of his speech in Swansea on Sunday.

Mr Blair's speech, planned long before Mr Smith's death, identified education - including nursery education - as a priority. And he stressed the capacity of the private, public and voluntary sectors to combine for social ends in what should 'not be a battle for territory but a search for mutual achievement'. The speech drew together themes which have run consistently through speeches he has made since before the 1992 election.

He warned that Britain had 'lost its identity as a country' because of social and family disintegration. Invoking Labour's early development from co-operatives, friendly societies and trade unions, he insisted it was ideally placed to 'recreate for the 21st century the civil society to which these movements gave birth in the 20th century.'

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