Blair makes appeal to Middle England

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair yesterday pitched for the votes of Middle England as he warned that social division was the real threat to the unity of the United Kingdom.

Driving home his message that "we are all worse off under the Tories", he told his party's local government conference that social justice - Labour's "core value" - was about much more than the charity of the affluent helping the poor. "It is about an alliance of the poor and the comfortable attacking vested interests which hold us all back". It meant attacking poverty, but also "fair treatment from your bank manager". Help with the mortgage when unemployed, but also "the right to know what is happeningto your pension fund". A minimum wage, but also helping small business get off the ground.

For too long, Labour had allowed itself to be painted as merely helping a minority when it stood for the majority, tackling "poverty at the bottom and greed and excess at the top and ensuring that wealth and power and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few". The Conservatives, he said, having never cared about the underclass had now "sold out the middle classes too".

In a wide-ranging speech he warned Labour local government of its responsibility to root out waste and be disciplined on spending. In Government, he underlined, Labour would have the powers "to ensure the antics of the few bad councils" never tarnish thename of the majority that were good. "We have shed a bad reputation," he told councillors who now control more local authorities than at any time in the party's history, "we are building a good one. But we must all be vigilant".

His warmest reception, however, came when he left his text to hammer home the need to change Clause IV as a symbol to the electorate that Labour can be trusted.

To enthusiastic applause, he declared: "The only time we've ever been able to do anything is when sensible, radical people on the left have had the guts to get themselves in order so that they can change things too. We do have the guts and we do have thecourage. We are going to change this country."

Buoyed by the Young Labour conference vote on Saturday to support a rewriting of Clause IV, he said redrawing it would demonstrate that "we, who ask for the right to change our country, have had the courage to change ourselves".

Under the Conservatives, he said, everyone was worse off when education cuts were being made now to pay for tax cuts later, when the health service was being run down to push people into private care, when railways were being privatised to provide fewer routes and higher prices, and when the Tories thought "only of cost, never of value".

"They fail to understand the public's need for public services, their belief in public services" and the fact that society existed and had a role.

With Britain facing social division on a scale which "shames both our history and our standing in the world", he warned that "a country which is socially unjust will never be successful". He said that while the Conservatives believed Britain's strength came from a few people at the top, Labour said "Britain's strength comes from all of its people".

His day was marred only by the embarrassment of newspaper reports that the Oratory, the school his son is to join later this year, refuses to recognise the teachers' unions or negotiate with them. Harriet Harman, whose 11-year-old also attends the Oratory, refused to answer reporters' questions on the issue after a speech in which she underlined that Labour would allow workers to join a union and have it recognised.

The party's employment spokeswoman told the conference, "being able to have a union on your side as a `strong friend at work' is as important for the two women working in a dry cleaner as it is for the 200 men working in a factory".

A party spokesman said she never discussed her children's education in public.