Blair puts out the welcome mat for Tory defectors

Voters are 'coming home', the Labour leader claims
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Indy Politics
The voters who defected from Labour and switched their support to Margaret Thatcher in the late-1970s and early-1980s were "coming home" again, Tony Blair claimed yesterday.

The Labour leader told a meeting in Gloucester that Labour, unlike the Conservatives, was speaking for the whole country, not just a wealthy section of it, and he added: "People who deserted us are coming home to Labour.

"People who bought into the Thatcherite dream of choice, freedom and opportunity have seen that dream destroyed by tax rises, negative equity, job insecurity, rising crime, [and] failing public services."

Evidence of a surge of interest in Labour was provided by a telephone conference line set up by Labour after a party political broadcast on its newly-launched manifesto draft, New Labour, New Life for Britain, on Thursday night.

With 1,000 lines made available,147,697 people called in the hope of speaking with Mr Blair.

"The calls were friendly, but some obviously had concerns," he said yesterday. "They want to be sure that New Labour is real. They want to know that the policies in our document are the policies they will get. I can assure them, they are."

Having spent the morning at Heathrow Airport, during which he toured the tunnel for the new Heathrow-Paddington express rail link, Mr Blair went to Gloucester, a Tory marginal, with John Prescott, the deputy Labour leader.

Mr Blair told a meeting in the constituency that the Conservatives represented "the politics of fear", and he said they would fight both a "dirty and negative" election campaign.

Yesterday, the Conservatives placed full-page advertisements in a number of national newspapers - including the right-wing Daily Mail - to warn about the "new danger" posed by New Labour.

Labour was bemused that the Tories were so proud of what it called their "dirty work" that some people needed a magnifying glass to read the words: "Published by Conservative Central Office."

Labour also published a four-page pull-out section for the Daily Mail and the Sun, setting out its five basic pledges, including the promise to use "money from a windfall levy on the privatised utilities" to finance a programme to get 250,000 youngsters off the dole and into work.

That pledge attracted a welter of attacks from leading ministers, with Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, saying that the "magic tax" was falling apart. It would not raise anything like the amount Labour hoped for, he said, and if it did, it would have to be financed by customers, shareholders and reduced investment.

Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, attacked the pledge to finance a cut in infant-school class sizes "by using money saved from the assisted-places scheme".

"The most they would save would be pounds 57m," he said. "It would cost more than pounds 180m to cut class sizes to 30 or under for 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds."

Ministers have ordered statisticians from the Department for Education and Employment to work on those calculations, but Andrew Smith,Labour's Treasury spokesman, said the estimates were based on the ministers' version of Labour policy - which alleged immediate abolition of assisted places, rather than the phase-out that Labour has promised.