ELECTION '97 : Born-again party looks for converts

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The Independent Online
New Labour was yesterday presented by Tony Blair as a party "reborn", and open to converts from all other parties.

The Labour leader said at his first regular daily press conference that the Conservatives had become the party of the few, while Labour was the party of the many.

Appealing to people who had voted Conservative, Liberal, Nationalist or Green in the 1992 election to take a look at New Labour, Mr Blair introduced Alan Howarth, the former Tory MP for Stratford-upon-Avon who is now Labour's candidate for Newport East, as the man who would lead a taskforce to help turn Tory waverers.

"He will be writing directly to these voters to explain the case for new Labour," Mr Blair said. "His message will be simple: new Labour is real; it is a party reborn; it represents the best hope for our country."

Later, when pressed to explain Labour's repudiation of traditional support for redistributive taxation, Mr Blair suggested that new Labour was aiming to be as radical as Clement Attlee's post-war Labour government.

"The focus of new Labour," he said, "is to leave what the Eighties got right alone, but change what they got wrong - the education system, the welfare system - it is how we build those opportunities in a more divided and unequal society.

"That is what new Labour is about and if we achieve those ends, we will have achieved every bit as much as any reforming, radical Labour government of the past."

Mr Blair said that Labour was the "One Nation" party, picking up the traditions of the Tory left, "behind which people from all walks of life, all classes, all parts of Britain can unite in order to provide this country with a programme of sensible, modern change".

Mr Howarth told the press conference: "I left the Conservative Party because it has changed for the worse and I joined new Labour because it had changed for the better.

"Labour understands the role of the market economy, but it also seeks to heal social division and to extend opportunity to all regardless of their background. It matches support for enterprise with support for the weakest in society. It stands for what is decent and right."

The taskforce Mr Howarth will lead comprises about 50 high-profile defectors from other parties who will be used to target wavering voters, particularly in Labour's top 90 marginal target seats.

Later, speaking to businessmen in Derby, Mr Blair made a fresh attempt to win the votes of Euro-sceptics with a clear signal that a Labour government would be very likely to draw back from joining a single currency if it went ahead in 1999.

Repeating his promise of a referendum, the Labour leader said he would not take Britain into a fudged currency or one that was not in its interests. Senior party sources added later that it was "highly unlikely" that Britain would join.