Blair offers vision of a new young Britain

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Indy Politics

Parliamentary Correspondent

Tony Blair yesterday portrayed Labour as the "patriotic party", wanting to build a united Britain, where politics is not fought by appealing to one section of the nation at the expense of another.

In a speech of just over an hour, very well received by the Brighton conference, the Labour leader said he would devote himself and his party to creating the country of the post-war generation's dreams.

He wanted to build a "new and young country" that laid aside the old prejudices. "One Britain ... where your child in distress is my child, your parent ill and in pain is my parent, your friend unemployed and helpless is my friend, your neighbour my neighbour. That is the true patriotism of a nation."

Declaring Labour to be the patriotic party because it was the party of the people, Mr Blair said he knew what many people would be thinking as the Tories waved their Union Flags next week in Blackpool: "It is no good waving the fabric of our flag when you have spent 16 years tearing apart the fabric of our nation."

He never mentioned John Major by name and questioned the survival of the National Health Service and free state education if the Tories were returned for a fifth term.

The Liberal Democrats did not feature at all, but he said Labour would co-operate with others on constitutional change. There would be legislation in the first year for a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly. London should have a directly elected authority and the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords would be ended as the first step to reform of the second chamber.

Telling unions to "leave the battles of the past", Mr Blair said laws on ballots, peaceful picketing and the conduct of disputes would stay. But he reaffirmedLabour's commitment to sign the European Social Chapter on workers' rights and drew loud applause for his opposition to rail privatisation.

"To anyone thinking of grabbing our railways, built up over the years, so they can make a quick profit as our network is broken up and sold off, I say this: There will be a publicly owned, and publicly accountable railway system under a Labour government."

Acknowledging that the transition to "new Labour" had been painful for some, Mr Blair said that socialism to him was never about nationalisation or the power of the state. It was a moral purpose in life.

"It is how I try to live my life. The simple truths. I am worth no more than anyone else. I am my brother's keeper. I will not walk by on the other side." People were not set in isolation from each other but members of the same family, the same community.

"This is my socialism. And the irony of our long years in opposition is that those values are shared by the vast majority of the British people."

Mr Blair said he did not enter politics to change the Labour Party but to change his country. "And I honestly believe that if we hadn't changed, if we had not returned our party to its values, freed from the weight of outdated ideology, we could not change the country.

"For I do not want a one-term Labour government that dazzles for a moment then ends in disillusion. I want a Labour government that governs for a generation and changes Britain for good."

Setting the background to his call for a "young Britain", Mr Blair said his generation had been born into the welfare state and the market economy of bank accounts, supermarkets, jeans and cars. They had money in their pockets, had travelled abroad and had been through the sexual revolution of the Sixties.

"This generation, my generation, enjoys a thousand material advantages over any previous generation; and yet we suffer a depth of insecurity and spiritual doubt they never knew." The family was weakened, society divided. "We see elderly people in fear of crime, children abused."

In a key section, he stressed the importance of education as the best economic policy. The future lay in the marriage of education and technology, he said. "We will never compete on the basis of a low-wage, sweat-shop economy." Knowledge was power, information was opportunity, and technology could make it happen.

He announced to the conference that British Telecom had agreed that in return for full access to the cable entertainment market - denied them by the Government - the company would connect up every college, hospital and library in Britain for free as it built the cable network.

"They get the chance to win new markets. The nation gets the chance to succeed. That is what I mean by new Labour, that kind of co-operation."

He said David Blunkett, the party's education spokesman, would be opening discussions with education authorities and computer companies towards the goal of ensuring that every child had access to a laptop computer.

Avoiding the contentious words "grant-maintained schools", he said there would be no more dogma in education and no more arguments about structures. "For every school, fair and equal funding. No return to selection, academic or social."

Labour would be the champion of standards for the 21st century. There would be a nursery place for every three- and four-year-old and class sizes of less than 30 for every five-, six- and seven-year-old.

Mr Blair said no-one pretended Labour could solve unemployment overnight, but no decent society could tolerate the level of long-term unemployment with all the misery and social breakdown it brought. "So we will take the excess profits of the new robber barons of Tory Britain in the privatised utilities, and use it for the most radical programme of work and education for the unemployed ever put forward in Britain."