Election '97: Blair's pledge to Britain

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Tony Blair yesterday offered the country a 10-commitment covenant with the British people; a package of promises that he could and would deliver - and stand to be judged upon.

Acknowledging the need to create a durable bond of trust between new Labour and the electorate, the Labour leader used the launch of his party's manifesto to play down expectations, saying he was not promising the earth, or magic wands.

He was offering a fresh start and, repeatedly borrowing the title of today's Liberal Democrat manifesto, he said Labour would "make a difference".

The specific commitments he made, including the five core promises on education, crime, the National Health Service, jobs, taxes and the economy, were not going to revolutionise people's lives overnight, he said.

"But we can make Britain better. They can make a difference. Hold us to them. Then, when we come back at the election after next, we're going to say to you, 'Trust us again, because we kept our promises'. Now, if that was how British politics was run, you might find rather less cynicism and rather more hope."

But he also warned that, having created a broad-based party of the political centre and centre-left: "This is our historic opportunity. We blow this opportunity, we blow our place in history. It's as simple as that."

Introducing his manifesto, New Labour: Because Britain Deserves Better, Mr Blair said: "It sticks up for the interests of the many, not the few, for those who have to rely on their own merits, the hard-working majority whose interests have often been ignored in recent years."

Later, he told ITN's lunch-time news that the 10p starting- rate of tax was an objective that was not tied to a promised timescale. But he added: "I do believe ... it's time we let the hard-working majority get a tax break as well. We will do it as soon as we can."

Outlining his 10 commitments, Mr Blair told his London launch press conference that education would be the number-one priority, delivering "the most radical overhaul of our education system since World War Two". In his personal introduction to the manifesto, he said: "I want a Britain which we all feel part of, in whose future we all have a stake, in which what I want for my own children I want for yours."

Asked by The Independent whether that meant a London Oratory school in every town or local schools that would be good enough for his own children, Mr Blair took up the personal challenge: "Can I say what I want for my children and for yours? I don't want second- best for my kids, and I don't want second-best for yours."

The manifesto registered a number of changes made since last year's draft manifesto, New Labour, New Life for Britain. Other changes contributed towards a further softening of Labour's past. For example, New Life said: "Democratic socialism is not about high taxes on ordinary families." Yesterday's Britain Deserves said: "New Labour is not about high taxes on ordinary families."

Over time, "high and stable levels of employment" has itself replaced Labour's traditional commitment to full employment - a centrepiece of the all-party post-war settlement. Other Labour icons have been even less durable. The New Life vision of "a stakeholder Britain" has lasted no more than a few years - and, like "socialism" cannot be found in the new manifesto.

A row blew up last night between Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, over an alleged pounds 1.5bn "black hole" in Labour's plans - because Labour would not benefit from the Tories' planned privatisation receipts. Labour said Conservative plans had the same "hole", because they had not made privatisation plans that would raise pounds 1.5bn.

John Major yesterday pre-empted the manifesto, saying: it was not so much a contract as a con-trick. "What's left out is more important than what's left in: that in six weeks, they'll sell out in Europe; in three months, they'll raise billions of pounds in tax; in 12 months, they'll hand more power back to the unions."

Paddy Ashdown, who this morning launches his manifesto, Make a Difference, accused Mr Blair of breaking a "vow" on education spending.

The latest Harris poll for The Independent shows a three-point increase in Liberal Democrat support since last week, but the Labour lead remains constant. A Gallup snapshot poll for the Daily Telegraph put Labour at 52 per cent, the Conservatives on 31 per cent and Liberal Democrats on 11 per cent.

Labour's key commitments

Education would be the number one priority, and the share of national income spent on it would increase during the course of a five- year Parliament. Class sizes would be cut to less than 30 for all five, six and seven year-olds.

There would be no increase in the basic or top rates of income tax.

Labour would get 250,000 young unemployed people off benefits and into work.

Spending on administration in the National Health Service would be cut to put more money into patient care.

Key trade union reforms of the 1980s on ballots and picketing would be retained. Where a majority of the relevant workforce want union recognition it should be granted.

The current government's inflation target of 2.5 per cent would be met.

Referendums would be held this year on devolution for Scotland and Wales.

The rights of hereditary peers to sit or vote in the House of Lords would be removed and the life peer system would be reviewed.

Labour would back Britain's bid to host the 2006 World Cup.


Change since last week

Labour 52% down 2

Con 28% down 2

Lib Dem 14% up 3

Referendum Pty 3% up 1

Others 3%

Harris Research interviewed 1,091 adults face-to-face in their homes between 27 and 31 March.