Blair on Major's home ground

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Tony Blair laid claim to John Major's home turf last night, speaking to young people in the district once represented by the Prime Minister as a Lambeth councillor in Brixton, south London.

While the Labour leader's aides cast doubt on the authenticity of Mr Major's claim to humble origins, Mr Blair asserted Labour's right to speak for the deprived inner cities.

He said his mainly black and young audience would have the same question as any other audience. "What difference will Labour make to me and to my community?" And his answer would also be the same: "Young people in Brixton want the same as young people anywhere else - a role in life, a good education, the chance of a job, a life free of crime, and a decent standard of living for themselves and their families."

The Labour leader told his audience he wanted the alienated youth of the inner cities to re-engage in the democratic life of the nation.

He accused the Tories of wanting to breed cynicism and apathy, and drew attention to The Independent's report this week that two million people, mostly in the inner cities, are not registered to vote, and urged his audience to vote for anyone. "I would rather someone voted Tory than not at all," he said.

He invoked the example of President Mandela. "If there is anyone who can teach us the value of having a vote it is Nelson Mandela, who fought all his life to bring democracy to his country," he said.

Earlier, writing in the London Evening Standard, he signalled that he thought a directly-elected Mayor of London was more important than a new slimline GLC to reviving interest in voting. "We must improve the quality of our democracy. That is why I am so keen on the idea of elected mayors, and an elected authority for London."

Mr Blair was invited to a question-and-answer session by the Stockwell Park Estate Community Trust, and said he had been "delighted" to accept the challenge. He said a similar invitation to the Prime Minister had been turned down.

Although Mr Major was at the Anglo-French summit yesterday, the invitation was for a debate at any time.

A spokesman for Tory Central Office yesterday dismissed suggestions that Mr Major was reluctant to stage a face-to-face debate with Mr Blair. "You only have to look at the record of Labour in Lambeth to know why Mr Major is a Conservative, and to know why Labour policies have been disastrous for the people there," he said.

Mr Major reminded the Tory conference in Bournemouth last year of his early years in Brixton, immortalised in the political broadcast "The Journey" before the last election, in which he murmured "It's still there, it's still there", as he drove past the small flat to which his family had been forced to move from leafy Worcester Park by the failure of his father's business.