More than half Labour MPs already back Blair

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR was yesterday backed by more than half the Parliamentary Labour Party and 13 out of 19 Shadow Cabinet members as his campaign for the Labour party leadership became almost unstoppable.

Mr Blair's list of backers, which includes Robin Cook and others on the party's centre-left, was issued as the shadow home secretary launched his formal leadership bid at a meeting in his Sedgefield constituency in Co Durham. His endorsement took less than five minutes in the packed concert room of Trimdon Labour Club.

Mr Blair called on Labour to 'change the tide of ideas', adding: 'We must state a new vision of our country, a vision of hope that the world as it is is not the world as it is meant to be.'

The task of a Labour government would be 'national renewal, rebuilding Britain as a strong and cohesive society where we use the power of all acting together to develop the potential of each to the full; and where our people are secure in their respect for one another and in the self-respect that respect for others alone can bring, where economic prosperity and social justice are combined'.

Unlike his main rivals, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett, Mr Blair did not call for full employment but described mass unemployment as a 'moral evil' and an 'economic and social waste that impoverishes us all'. Denzil Davies, the outsider of the four contenders, criticised Mr Blair for failing 'the test of full employment'. He added: 'Tony Blair's economic priorities differ little, it seems, from those of John Major.'

Mr Prescott told the Northumberland Miners' Gala at Ashington that 'Britain needs a strong leader with a conviction to end the disgrace of mass unemployment'. He added: 'This Tory Government has declared war on millions of our own people by throwing them on the dole and into poverty. It is a government of industrial vandals that has destroyed the coal industry, destroyed the steel industry and destroyed the shipyards that were the economic backbone of this region.'

The bookmakers halved Mrs Beckett's odds yesterday, making her second favourite to Mr Blair at 5-1.

Mr Blair's 135 backers from the 268-strong PLP - which has a third of the electoral college votes - include several on the soft left, such as Mr Cook, the trade and industry spokesman, and Frank Dobson, the transport spokesman, and more than a dozen women MPs. Neil Kinnock, the former leader, and Hilary Armstrong, John Smith's Parliamentary Private Secretary, are also on the list.

In Sedgefield, Mr Blair's nomination was carried by acclamation of the 300 party members present, some of them sporting plastic red roses.

He gave a string of television interviews in the sunshine on Trimdon's well-clipped village green, patted the heads of a couple of young lads and chatted with his local Catholic priest, Father John Caden.

There were no policy pronouncements. Mr Blair side-stepped the question of re-nationalising British Rail and the nature of his commitment to full employment, abolition of Clause 4 of the party constitution and other tricky subjects.

For all his TV inquisitors, he had the same mantra: 'a strong and active society' informed by Labour values that would enable individuals to succeed. This was not, he insisted, the same as the Tories' 'active citizen' and he did not take kindly to Blairism being compared with Thatcherism.

Sedgefield party has 1,800 members largely recruited on the doorstep over the last two years with cut-price membership for as little as pounds 1 a year. It is the model for the future of Tony Blair's 'one-member, one-vote' Labour Party.

Left-wing party activists meeting in Manchester yesterday urged the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs to put up a candidate for the leadership contest. Ken Livingstone, former leader of the GLC and MP for Brent East, is the most likely contender, but there are doubts whether he will be able to pick up the necessary number of nominations from fellow MPs to stand.

Blair and the Lib-Dems, page 6

(Photograph omitted)

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