Election `97: while Blair revels in ovation at the Victoria

Steve Boggan attended a Labour rally aimed at wooing Tory waverers
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Indy Politics
While thousands of flag-waving Tories were enjoying a rousing beano at the Royal Albert Hall in London (capacity 5,500), Tony Blair was at the Victoria Hall in Kidsgrove, Staffordshire (capacity 400), taking his message to the front line.

It was billed as Tony versus the Tory waverers, an opportunity to upstage John Major by showing that small is beautiful, but it was spoilt slightly by the fact that hardly any Conservatives showed up.

Instead, hundreds of die-hard Labour supporters arrived and gave him a standing ovation before he spoke his first words - which, rather embarrassingly, were: "We deliberately draw a contrast with the Conservatives in the Albert Hall in London. They are preaching to the converted. I am here persuading those who have not been converted ..."

Nevertheless, it was a worthwhile exercise in a constituency - Staffordshire Moorlands - which is held by the Tories, but which should swing to Labour simply because of boundary changes. And it gave Labour the opportunity to liken the Tory rallies - and their inherent emphasis on patriotism - to their own disastrous triumphalism in Sheffield at the last election.

"I am a patriot," said Mr Blair. "I love Britain and am proud to be British. And I will tell you what being a patriot means to me. Patriotism is not just about mouthing words, or waving the flag. It is about what is in your heart.

"It is about the nature of the society you want to build. It is about knowing that for a nation to be strong, society must be strong. That there is such a thing as society. That there must be a place within it for the weak as well as the strong. A Britain for the many, not the few."

Afterwards, aides said they had tried to attract more wavering Tories by placing advertisements in the local paper. "We wanted to show that while the Tories are going in for seven of these huge rallies, which seem to be aimed at boosting party morale, Tony wants to get out there meeting people and asking for their votes," said one aide. "A couple of weeks ago, the Conservatives said Mr Major was going to get on his soap box and talk to the people. Now they're presenting him as a big presidential- style candidate. We wouldn't be so arrogant. We don't take anyone's vote for granted." So, were the few Conservatives who did attend turned on to Labour? June Ross, a 59-year-old retired schoolteacher from Stoke-on- Trent, was. Before the meeting, she said she had been turned off the Tories by sleaze. "They only want to line their own pockets," she said. After the meeting, she said: "I will vote for him. He is a very personable man and I was impressed by his sincerity and the fact that he won't make promises he can't deliver ..."

But Jack Hartley, 64, a retired civil servant, was not so easily won over. "I'm still undecided," he said. "He seems very articulate, but he came across as a bit of a political Del Boy. That's not unusual, mind - that's how I think of all politicians."