More choice will not harm poor, Labour promises

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair will try to reassure traditional Labour voters that his plans to extend choice in public services will not favour the better off at the expense of the poor.

The Cabinet will meet today to discuss a draft Labour general election manifesto which includes proposals that the Prime Minister hopes will enable the Government to "complete the transformation" of public services before he stands down.

But amid fears that Labour supporters will desert the party over Iraq, party strategists admit they will need to be reassured that a new round of reforms will improve the life chances of the pooras well as benefit the middle classes.

Turnout is seen as the crucial factor in the election and the Cabinet will agree today to warn progressive voters that they could allow Michael Howard into Downing Street by abstaining or backing the Liberal Democrats.

A Labour source said last night: "Boosting the turnout is the central strategic objective."

In the campaign, Labour will say Mr Blair is now fighting on the big issues, such as the Middle East peace process, aid for Africa and international co-operation to halt global warming. It will tell potential Labour defectors that Mr Howard has been "on the wrong side" of every domestic issue since he opposed the national minimum wage as Employment Secretary.

"The message to people thinking of sitting on the fence or voting Liberal Democrat is that this election is too important to allow the Tories to slip in through the back door," said the Labour source. "Even if they don't agree with every policy, many recognise that we have improved lives and that the Tories would be a disaster." Labour's strategy is designed to reduce the number of people who describe themselves as "natural Labour" but say they do not intend to back the party.

The manifesto is expected to include a range of measures to extend "choice" and treat users of services as "consumers" as well as "citizens". Mr Blair believes that injecting competition into state-run services drives up standards.

But he has accepted the need to reassure voters that his new round of reforms will not result in a selective education system and that health treatment under Labour will be based on need, not ability, to pay and will remain free at the point of use.

He will make clear that the extension of free market principles in state-run services will not threaten the traditional Labour principle of equal access to them - a key concern of Chancellor Gordon Brown, who will signal his return to the front line of Labour's election campaign by giving a presentation on how the party should attack the Tories' tax and spending plans.

Mr Blair's pledge to stand for re-election on an "unremittingly New Labour" ticket has worried Labour traditionalists. But his allies hope he can reassure them by contrasting his plans with what Labour describes as the "cuts and charges" approach of the Tories.

Mr Blair is expected to announce a 5 May election on Monday. The manifesto will be formally approved at a meeting next week involving the Cabinet, Labour's national executive committee and representatives of Labour MPs and the party's national policy forum.