Blair plans 'meet the people' tours

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Tony Blair, planning to embark on a wide-ranging series of "meet the people tours" after the New Year, yesterday promised that Labour was ready to fight - and if possible precipitate - a general election in 1996.

The Labour leader made it clear that the party would be preparing for an election this year because it was difficult to see how the Government - which faces a likely majority of just three after two forthcoming by- elections - could continue. He added in an ITN interview: "If we can bring about a situation in which we can bring the Government down, and the country can decide whether it wants a new direction, then of course we will take it," he said.

Mr Blair's remarks came as he issued a New Year message promising that the Labour front bench would be taking the party's policy agenda "to every part of the country so that the people may test us, so that their views can inform ours, and inform the policy ideas we develop and promote".

The Labour leader is planning to meet the public as he did party members during the campaign to change Clause IV earlier in the year and he has subsequently met thousands of leading businessmen in encounters designed to remove their potential fears of a Labour victory.

The programme is expected to start with meetings of parents and teachers intended to explain Labour's education policy. But it is likely to be extended to other areas as the year moves on. Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, also plans to take his message to the people on a nation- wide tour starting early in the New Year.

In his New Year message Mr Blair asserted that Labour wanted to "move beyond" the achievements of 1995 in which the party had "built up a relationship of trust with the people," by forming a "genuine partnership with the people". He said: "We have developed a distinctive, new and radical political agenda for Britain which breaks through traditional dividing lines of left and right."

Meanwhile, in his New Year message, Mr Ashdown warned Labour it faced being a "one-Parliament flop".

Mr Ashdown warned of the danger that a progressive government "comes to power on a wave of warm words and weak promises, is blown hither and thither by events, proves unable to meet the expectations raised in easy opposition, and descends into a one-Parliament flop, paving the way for a rejuvenated, more extreme Right".

"1996 is the year to start building a new contract of trust between politicians and people, not on the candy floss of cosy promises, but on the basis of sharing hard facts and explaining difficult choices," he said.

Profile of the year, page 12