Tony Blair could secure a two-term Labour government and bring about reforms that eluded even Margaret Thatcher, Singapore's former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said yesterday.
The accolade from one of Baroness Thatcher's most ardent admirers came as the Labour leader pledged a modernised welfare state and a commitment to tackle long-term unemployment as part of the "stakeholder economy" promised in the concluding speech of his Far East tour.
Spelling out the implications of Labour's answer to the Tory slogan of Britain as the "enterprise centre of Europe", Mr Blair said opportunity would be available to all in the "stakeholder" society created by a future Labour government, with advancement through merit and with no group or class excluded. "We need a country in which we acknowledge an obligation collectively to ensure each citizen gets a stake in it," he told Singapore businessmen.
Labour's catchphrase was denounced as a soundbite by Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, while the Liberal Democrats said that far from finding a big idea in Singapore, Mr Blair had simply appropriated a concept that they had been advocating for years. The Liberal Democrat-sponsored Dahrendorf commission on Wealth Creation and Social Cohesion published last summer used very similar terminology.
Calling Mr Blair a potential worthy successor to Baroness Thatcher, Mr Lee said Mr Blair was in the "right party" to bring about reform, and could win two successive elections. While Mrs Thatcher had beaten Arthur Scargill, she never won the battle of the unions, he said. "Mr Blair speaks a different language for a different generation."
The Labour leader said that the old ways of sharing wealth - though the tax and benefit system - "won't do". A life dependent on the state, was not what most people wanted. The implications of creating a stakeholder economy were profound. "They mean a commitment by government to tackle long-term and structural unemployment."
Mr Heseltine countered: "Labour's latest soundbite is only a new disguise for their old corporatist ideas . . . Far from increasing the rights of the individual, they would impose ever greater central government regulation and control."
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