Bair's vision given a warm reception

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Indy Politics
Grass-roots Labour supporters gave Tony Blair a rousing reception in his North-east heartland last night as the Labour leader began a national crusade to modernise his party's constitutional commitment to public ownership.

The snow which hampered travel across the north of England did nothing to diminish the warmth of support Mr Blair received at the start of his campaign in Gateshead - a few miles from his Sedgefield constituency - with party activists, councillors and workers.

If the mood in the conference room at Gateshead Civic Centre proves a pointer for the rest of his tour, Mr Blair is heading for a walk-over with the rank and file. The reception from some of the 500 supporters at the meeting was more like a fan club for a cabaret star. He was cheered for his responses to questions about social justice, the health service, education and employment.

This delighted the leadership team, but there were some sceptical questions about his campaign being a distraction, and Mr Blair knows there will be tougher audiences.

Last night, he had no trouble winning hearts and minds. He opened with an attack on the Tories, stating: "This is the most discredited, despised government in living memory.

"They don't deserve to run our country but one thing I passionately believe in is that it is not enough for the Tories to be unpopular for Labour to win.

"Labour itself must be trusted to govern our people. I believe an essential part of that is to state in clear terms the modern identity of the Labour Party - what we stand for as well as what we are against."

Urging party supporters to accept changes to Clause IV of its constitution, he said: "It is important we state what we actually believe about public ownership. Of course there are key services that we want to be publicly owned and publicly accountable. But we also know that we need a strong private sector, a strong industrial base, a strong wealth-generating base for our economy so that we can provide the services that we need."

Dick Gonsalez, leader of the unions at the Swan Hunter shipyard on the Tyne, which is now closed, asked if Labour would take on board the Social Chapter, and was pleased with Mr Blair's reply that it would, in full.

Mr Gonsalez said later: "I think the meeting went very well and it will have done a lot to settle some of the unease in the left of the party. He made it clear the general principles of Clause IV are still going to be there.''

One of the region's best-known trade unionists, Tommy Brennan, chairman of the Tyne Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, said: "I think he answered everything very well. All sorts of people, including a good section of the left, were here and I think he allayed any fears."

Before leaving Westminster, the Labour leader said he was sure he would win when the re-writing of the nationalisation provision is put to a special conference on 29 April. But the left continued to attack his campaign. The front cover of yesterday's Tribune, the left-wing weekly, contrasts extracts from December's National Executive Committee constitution document and the SDP's Limehouse Declaration of March 1981. "Spot the difference", says the headline.