New Labour pledges loyalty to working-class roots

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TONY BLAIR has hit back angrily at criticism that Labour is now a "middle-class party" which has turned its back on its traditional supporters.

The Prime Minister said: "It suits our critics, inside and outside our ranks, to suggest New Labour is somehow a recent invention of a metropolitan- based elite, foisted on an unwilling party ... It is just not true."

Mr Blair angered Labour MPs last week by saying that Britain's old establishment was being replaced by a new meritocratic middle class, including millions who traditionally might see themselves as working class. The MPs saw this as a further sign that Labour was moving away from its working-class foundations.

"New Labour has its roots solidly in the traditional Labour area of the North-east I am lucky enough to represent," said Mr Blair, MP for Sedgefield. "It derives from an acceptance that we had lost touch with the needs and ambitions of the people we sought to represent ... While retaining our traditional values, our party had to modernise to modernise our country."

Mr Blair's counter-attack came in the foreword to a pamphlet, The Roots of New Labour, charting the growth of the Sedgefield Labour Party. Membership rose from 600 in 1983, when Mr Blair became its candidate, to 2,000 after long-winded meetings were replaced by social events and barbecues.

Phil Wilson, who was membership officer of the Sedgefield party and now works at Labour's Millbank headquarters in London, said in his pamphlet: "New Labour is not a product of think-tanks and focus groups. Neither is it something foreign which has been grafted on to the Labour Party. The roots of New Labour can be found in traditional hard-working communities.

"In Sedgefield, we had to appeal to our potential supporters in the private estates, if we were to help our traditional supporters living in council estates ... It was the genesis of New Labour and came from experiencing the sharp end of Thatcherism. It did not mean selling out on our principles and values."

However, Mr Wilson admitted Labour had "a problem" after a slight drop in membership during the past year, from 405,238 to 391,771.

He acknowledged that maintaining a united party might be the most difficult of Labour's objectives. There needed to be a "settled environment" in which the party and the Government worked together. Labour must be more than "an organisational structure which delivers elections"; it must be "a living, breathing entity".

"If the Labour Party is to succeed during the next century, modernisation will not end with Tony Blair. It must maintain its momentum. He realises that leaders come and go but the Labour Party goes on," said Mr Wilson.

Mr Blair agreed that the definition of an active Labour member - someone who attends meetings - is wrong. Community work, such as running a youth club or being a school governor, "is just as valuable to the party," said Mr Wilson. Rejecting allegations that Mr Blair is a "control freak," Mr Wilson insisted the party's new policy-making process was more open and democratic.

Blair a threat to Britain? Anne McElvoy, Review, page 3