INTERVIEW / Moderniser who has courage of his convictions: Tony Blair tells Donald Macintyre how he sees Labour taking on the Conservatives in his quest to be the party's next Prime Minister

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WE ARE sitting in Tony Blair's sunlit Islington garden in north London, a child's pedal car in the corner, at perhaps the most extraordinary moment in the Labour leadership campaign. Yesterday the first of more than 4 million ballot papers were on their way to voters. The vast untried constituency of Labour Party members and political- levy paying trade unionists have started to choose who they want to be the party's next prime minister.

In shirt sleeves, the clear favourite confidently parries a barrage of questions of detail. He does not slip into unguarded commitments and about this - almost the only muted criticism of his campaign - he is unrepentant. 'We are two to three years from a general election. Not merely is it unreasonable for people to expect the launch of a great detailed raft of policy, it would be absolutely daft for me to do so. What is necessary is a clear vision, a political and intellectual framework.'

He continues: 'You should have certain key flagship policies that will excite and spark people to vote for us. But the policies have to grow out of the vision and the ideas. For far too long Labour has thought that if it publishes 500-page policy documents, it has somehow changed the intellectual climate of the country. Well it hasn't. I sometimes think the only two groups of people who read these documents are ourselves and Tory Central Office, and occasionally they seem to read them better than we do. It is not the way politics works.

'The problem (in 1992) was that we wrote our spending proposals on child benefit and pensions three years before we got into the election, then we were writing our tax plans to meet them.'

It is not an error Tony Blair came into politics to make. As the first front-rank politician of the post-Sixties generation he had little to do with the student politics of his time. For the one-time rock musician - who told Radio 1 listeners yesterday he 'quite liked' Guns n' Roses and made a hip choice of records by Seal, Annie Lennox, Simply Red and REM - 'there were other things to do, other adventures to discover'.

His growing commitment to and interest in political ideas were not even then in doubt. But as he points out, it stemmed from intellectual and emotional conviction. For if it had been a matter of background he would not have gone into the Labour Party. He is, by the way, self-confidently unworried by having being to a public school, Fettes. 'I have never found my educational background a problem with ordinary voters. I have only ever found it a problem with middle-class journalists,' he says.

He should know. His Sedgefield constituency in Durham has probably the biggest party membership in the country. 'People are more sensible than that. They couldn't give a damn where you came from, they want to know what you are and whether you understand what they're about and can help them to lead better lives.'

Standing for the no-hope Beaconsfield constituency after the Falklands war and with Labour divisions at their worst taught him two things: that he was serious about a political career and second he was - long before the term was used - a moderniser. There were parts of the safe Tory constituency fringing Slough which had always been Labour - and they were losing faith in the party. 'People talk to me about Labour having to get its core vote out as if people like myself somehow weren't able to do that. In actual fact, part of what modernisation has always been about has been reconnecting Labour with its traditional base. These are the people that care about crime. These are the people who worry about their kids getting decently educated at school.'

The intellectual influences on Mr Blair's ethical socialism owe as much to history as to political theory. 'When you go back and read about Kier Hardie you understand that what a lot of what people came to perceive as the great driving forces behind the Labour Party weren't the driving forces behind it at all. He used to talk about self-help and self-improvement the whole time. Some of the strongest speeches you will ever read about crime were made by members of the post- war 1945 government.'

There are two clearly discernible themes emerging in the Blair campaign. Labour, he says, has to attack the Tories as 'the party of injustice and lack of compassion' but also 'on the central grounds of economic competence and opportunity'. And that means proving that 'both the old notion of central state control and the new right free-market theory are both wrong, and what a modern economy actually requires is to have the notion of partnership. Not in order to change the market but to make it more dynamic.'

Mr Blair cites two examples. One is the realisation by Labour that 'not all public services need to be delivered through the old model of the public sector. You can have voluntary organisations or even private-sector organisations delivering training, for example.' Another is trade union law 'in which there are rights for people to exercise properly at the workplace, but they are balanced by responsibilities. Now that's what I would call new left thinking, rather than old left thinking.'

Once Labour, he argues, has left behind the 'false choice' between 'old left and new right' it can stop being on the defensive. 'You can then take the Tories on. You get to the point where you say there is no retreat. This is where we stand.'

He cites the example of his own changes to Labour's policy on crime. 'It was important that were able to discuss the causes of crime, the social decay, the disintegration, the family breakdown, the instability in society, the fact you've got a whole culture out there totally alienated from society's mainstream in which kids are growing up. I knew that Labour couldn't actually argue that case unless it was also prepared say we are not excusing criminals who are going and making your life hell in your local community.'

Once it was accepted that Labour was not excusing criminals, it was possible to talk more about the 'causes of crime than probably any person before me had done'.

'Exactly the same in relation to the economy, the moment you say, of course we believe in a market economy. There is no other sensible form of running an economy, but whereas the Tories say that's it, everything else takes care of itself, we are able to join battle with them on the right ground which is to say that's rubbish, there are many things the market can't do.'

He adds: 'I am able to get up at union conferences to say people should have the right to join a trade union, they should be able to have that trade union represent them at the workplace. And we don't retreat on that. And when the Tories come after us, we say why on earth should people not have the right in a free and democratic society to join a trade union and have them represent them.'

But he is able to do that with confidence, he argues, precisely because Labour now accepts that rights carry with them responsibilities, that strikes require ballots.

He sums up: 'Once you're no longer defending things that are dark and indefensible you can go out and attack the Tories because the ground you're defending is sensible, good ground.' It is Mr Blair's message of the day. No retreat. No surrender.

(Photograph omitted)