Blair vows to 'change Britain for good'

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Political Editor

Tony Blair yesterday sought to wrest the high ground of patriotism and national unity from the Tories in a crusading appeal to voters to put their faith in a "new generation" and give him a mandate to make Britain "the young country of my generation's dreams".

The Labour leader dramatised his pledge to build a "new economy of the future" by announcing a deal with British Telecom to allow it into the competitive cable entertainment market in return for linking every school, college, hospital and library in the country to the information superhighway for free.

But he also sent a tangible thrill through the Labour conference at Brighton by making it clear that his ambition as the first prime minister born since Second World War would be to lead a Labour government that did not "dazzle for a moment and end in disillusion" but would "govern for a generation and change Britain for good".

Passionately proclaiming the "moral purpose" of his own socialism, he promised a party still reeling from the pace of internal reform since he became leader 16 months ago: "I didn't come into politics to change the Labour Party. I came into politics to change the country".

In a speech highlighting a series of policy pledges of social and technological innovation, he declared that Labour would cast out old divisions and prejudices and create "a nation for all the people built by all the people". Mr Blair remembered how many of the veterans he had encountered lining the Mall during the VJ Day anniversary celebrations had shouted to him to "get the Tories out". He said: "These are our people. They love this country, just as we do. It is because they love this country that they look to us to change it.''

Having brought the conference to its feet at the outset by bringing an emotional Lady Wilson - widow of the former prime minister - to the front of the platform, he then went on to invite inevitable comparisons with the late Labour premier's famous 1963 "white heat of technology" speech when the party was last on the verge of an electoral breakthrough. The new technological and economic challenges, Mr Blair insisted, needed a change in the basis of "this country's thinking for the last 100 years".

In addition to the deal to free British telecommunications companies in 2002 from the restrictions preventing competition with mainly US cable companies, Mr Blair announced that his education spokesman, David Blunkett, would negotiate with computer companies to secure a public-private partnership that would provide every pupil with access to a laptop computer.

Declaring that "education is the best economic policy there is", he pledged a pounds 60m plan to cut primary school classes to 30 and a new high-tech NHS scheme to link GPs with regional "centres of excellence" pioneered by the world famous - and Labour-supporting - obstetrician, Robert Winston.

However, in a distinctly un-Blairite intervention last night the egalitarian former deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, told the Tribune rally that public schools should be abolished.

Mr Blair pledged to attack long-term unemployment, outlining plans to bring single parents into the labour market, and to end the "stigma of means- testing" by a pensions guarantee based on a mix of public and private provision. There was the faintest echo of John F Kennedy in the 42-year- old Labour leader's repeated references to the fitness of "my generation" to lead Britain into a "new age". And in a passage which bore some of the hallmarks of Neil Kinnock - to whom Mr Blair paid fulsome tribute as the pioneer moderniser - he declared that British society should be such that "your child in distress is my child, your parent ill and in pain is my parent, your friend unemployed or helpless, my friend, your neighbour, my neighbour. I am my brother's keeper".

Mr Blair appeared last night to have united the vast majority of his party behind his leadership, although he warned union leaders he might have to say no as well as yes on issues such as public sector pay.