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Election '97 : One nation once more?

Four weeks into the election campaign John Major and Tony Blair will today finally turn the political focus on to divided Britain with an appeal to voters who want a return to the united, One Nation values repudiated during the Thatcher years.

The similarity of the message from the two party leaders is no coincidence, but rather a reflection of an underlying concern of the electorate; that society has become too dangerously divided.

The two appeals, however, could not be couched in more brutally different terms.

For the Tories, Mr Major says in an exclusive article for today's Independent that he speaks from first-hand experience of inner-city deprivation; that he went into politics to help the "have-nots"; and the voters should not trust new Labour, ravenous for power and mouthing pieties behind the smile.

"When I speak about the classless society," the Tory leader says, "I have in mind the sort of people amongst whom I grew up. They deserve opportunity and choice. They should not be fobbed off with fine words and an easy smile."

For Labour, Mr Blair will today make a speech built around the re-creation of a decent, One Nation community. A senior adviser said last night that there was a growing fear of a break-up of society, with the "haves" showing increasing concern about unemployment, crime and disorder.

In today's speech, the Labour leader says: "All my adult life, I have kept to the simple beliefs that we achieve more together than we do alone. The rights we enjoy are matched by the duties we owe ... I personally believe a divided society is wrong for both moral and economic reasons, yet we are more divided than ever."

The bids of the two leaders for the same political territory, at the same time during the election campaign, with little more than a fortnight to go to polling day, suggests a dramatic make-or-break play for a critical slice of middle-ground votes - informed by similar results from private polling.

Mr Major's message to the Independent was reinforced by a briefing he gave yesterday in which he said that he had been forced in the past to concentrate on getting the economy "on a even keel". Before that had been achieved, he would have been talking into "empty air" if he had attempted to tackle other issues such as improving the state pension, the inner cities and education in the midst of a recession.

"It's perfectly true to say that I feel liberated in the sense that I can now address the social agenda that I have always cared about, that lay behind what I said about a classless society in early speeches. I can now do so against an economic climate where it is practical politics to do something about it."

In his Independent article, Mr Major says that the fundamental truth about Tory government is "that we have governed for the many, and not the few".

Mr Blair will today dissect that claim in a long-planned speech that draws together seven elements of Labour policy - separate policy packages on education, health, pensions, crime, housing, welfare, and social institutions, like the family.

Labour has argued throughout the campaign, and before, that it is fighting for the interests of the many, not the few, for example with its plans to phase out the assisted places scheme to help finance a reduction in class sizes for children aged five, six and seven.

But Labour is also saying that its welfare-to-work proposals, financed by a windfall tax on privatised utilities, is going down very well with the voters, while people are "terrified" about the prospect of pensions "privatisation".

Mr Blair says today: "There is a section of the population for whom work - the habits, the rewards - is now alien."

He argues that neither the Tories nor Mr Major have achieved the classless society that Mr Major said he wanted when he took office.

Mr Major's achievement, Mr Blair says, is that Britain is now top of the league in the Group of Seven industrialised countries - for the number of families without work; up from one-in-twelve back in 1979, to one-in- five.

The Conservative leader said yesterday: "The Tory party isn't one dimensional, you see. People think it's about efficiency ... "but [that] is only half the Tory party. The other half has always been used to a great deal of social change."

Labour's lead is holding, according to new polls from MORI and ICM. MORI, in yesterday's London Evening Standard, had Labour's lead unchanged on 21 points. ICM in today's Guardian shows the gap widening slightly to 14 points, compared to last week's 12-point margin. As usual, ICM reported a high Liberal Democrat share, at 19 per cent, with Labour lower, on 45 per cent, than other polls. Tony Blair's personal rating fell five points in the ICM poll, to 35 per cent, against 28 per cent for John Major, down one.