Constituency ready to cheer leadership favourite home: Malcolm Pithers, visiting Tony Blair's stronghold, finds an air of certainty about tomorrow's race

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Indy Politics
TONY BLAIR'S constituency, Sedgefield, a mix of rural, well-to-do areas and decimated towns and villages, is likely to turn out in large numbers tomorrow to cheer their man home. 'He is so far in front there is no race, is there? We've never posted odds or taken bets,' a bookmaker in the village of the same name said yesterday.

One man who has got a bet is taxi driver George Elliott. He placed pounds 10 on Tony Blair not just to become leader but Prime Minister, a wager he laid in the distant past. Local bookies gave him odds of 500-1.

Sedgefield, the place, is off the A1 south of Durham, a leafy, neat-lawned, almost manicured village with a commanding Norman church in the high street. It is also, for the moment, decidedly Tory.

Sedgefield constituency, taking in some 68,000 people, is rather different, encompassing the ravaged mining villages and the towns where work is still hard, if not impossible, to find. It is definitely Labour and four-square behind the New Man.

When - as everyone assumes - Mr Blair is elected leader tomorrow, the announcement will be shown live on a huge television screen set up at the constituency Labour club in Trimdon. The club will be packed not just with the media but many of the recently recruited Labour voters who are clearly impressed with what they have seen of Mr Blair. A few years ago the total Labour Party membership locally stood at about 450. Now it is nudging 2,000 and apparently growing every day during the leadership race.

The constituency has been something of a test bed for new ways of recruiting into the Labour movement. Local workers believe that the election of Mr Blair as leader will give even more impetus to the recruitment strategy and that the new methods will be used in many more areas.

One of the reasons for the recruitment success has been the abolition of the traditional annual fee of pounds 15. In Sedgefield people pay what they want, with a non-fixed minimum of pounds 1 a year. This has led to entire households, rather than one person, joining the party. One of the attractions for both sides is the feeling of greater involvement in Labour Party decisions.

Rita Taylor, the ebullient constituency secretary, says that when the recruitment drive started, whole villages were sent leaflets with a promise that a party worker would call back. 'We found we could not work through an entire street. People wanted us in and they wanted to talk. We now know that the whole process has to be put on a more sophisticated level and there is no doubt there are literally hundreds of people out there wanting to join up. It is all about involving the community in what happens. That is what people want . . .'

Away from the recruitment issue, the constituency needs to attract more industry. Brian Stephens, leader of Sedgefield district council, is wrestling with problems arising out of closures of local wagon works and coke plants, and, of course, all the old collieries. 'We have been fortunate in attracting new companies and that needs to carry on for us to win through.'

Tony Blair joined Margaret Beckett and John Monks, leader of the TUC, to endorse a new 24-hour legal helpline, CareXpress, launched yesterday by the Transport and General Workers' Union to provide assistance to members on domestic, financial and insurance matters.

(Photograph omitted)