Boy king not for turning: Donald Macintyre finds the Labour leader in robust form on the eve of his big speech at the party conference

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THERE is an amiable clutter in the little ground-floor den where Tony Blair has been working on the speech he is to deliver in Blackpool tomorrow. It is the most important of his career to date.

On the overflowing bookshelves, John Campbell's biography of Lord Birkenhead jostles for space with Scott Turow and Iris Murdoch. A guitar leans raffishly against the wall. The two Blair boys Nicky (8) and Euan (10), bathed, in pyjamas and on the way to bed, greet a visitor with cheerful, courteous handshakes. Labour being in its annual state of pre- conference controlled frenzy, the telephone rings continually.

The leader, however, is calm and good-humoured. And, since he was mildly chided by the think- tank Demos last week for dressing too formally in public, it is worth recording that he is working in a tracksuit.

Let us establish at the outset: in less than three months of being leader, Blair has already moved the Labour Party in several ways. He has put teeth into his rhetoric about not being beholden to the unions by refusing ritual support to the signalmen; he withheld reflexive condemnation of last month's interest-rate rise. Last week he redrew the economic policy boundaries between Conservatism and Labour. And, for good measure, he has repositioned the party on Northern Ireland and deftly set about replacing the party's general secretary.

And there is no sign that he will let up this week, not even to please an activist audience that has gathered for his coronation. Having redefined Labour's vision on the basis of 'a strong civic society able to back up the individual', Blair is now seeking to instil in the party confidence in its own transformation. Moreover, he is still talking the language - new for any Labour leader of recent times and at the heart of the crime policy which he developed as shadow home affairs spokesman - of a society which offers opportunity 'matched by responsibility'.

Take one example. Tony Blair's emphasis on the two-parent family in a television interview shortly after the leadership election has caused some in the party, well outside the fringes of the left, to draw in their breath. But Blair is robust about the criticism that his ethical socialist beliefs risk 'romanticising' outdated, old-style, family values.

The accusation of 'social conservatism' is, he says, 'slightly sneering' and incorrect. 'They're not really understanding what I'm saying here.' He does not, he says emphatically, 'want to recreate a strong society and community as a piece of nostalgia for the past'. Nor does he want to see it 'replicate the attitudes of the past'. He goes on: 'I don't want a society in which women don't work or gays can't be open about their sexuality or people are inhibited about discussing sex. That's not a society I'm interested in, and young people in particular wouldn't accept it if I was. But anyway that's not the culture I've grown up with or feel comfortable with.

'But what we do want in our country are rules and standards of conduct that people understand and can relate to. I think people are making a big mistake if they think that if you're talking the language of responsibility you're talking right-wing language.' After all, he notes, it was the left that sought to match individual with social responsibility.

So how far does that mean underpinning the nuclear family? Well, says Blair, family policy is important to Labour. 'We mustn't, for fear of getting into a debate, say, about single-parent families, end up not debating how we strengthen the family in a proper way. Strong communities revolve around strong families.'

Perhaps the toughest of the many tough policy questions Blair is going to have to resolve is the report, expected later this month, of Labour's Social Justice Commission, the body set up to cast Labour as the party of welfare state reform - if the new leader wants that role. Apparently he does: 'The welfare state unquestionably requires reform. There's no doubt it's not doing the job it was supposed to do. That shouldn't be an issue between ourselves and the Tories.' Beveridge, he says, never anticipated millions of people on benefit for lengthy periods, or that a government would allow current levels of structural unemployment, or that the labour market would change as dramatically as it has.

'I think the Labour Party is best placed to reform the welfare state because we believe in it. The problem with the Tory party is that one half wants to leave the welfare state as it is and the other half wants to destroy it.'

But Blair is cautious about specifics. Pressed on whether the time has come to end Labour's generations-old taboo about means-testing universal benefits, he points out that some - he might say most - benefits are means-tested now. 'But the primary aim of a modern welfare system should be not just to make the benefit system fair but also to ensure that we take as many people off benefit and into work as possible and that's what we want to do. Hence the slogan, 'a nation at work and not on benefit.' '

Blair is robustly dismissive of the 'nonsense' that by appealing to this centre ground Labour is in some way neglecting its 'core vote' or the unemployed, or the dispossessed and politically apathetic underclass. 'What most people who are unemployed or poor want is the chance to get a job and a decent standard of living.' The issues - like crime - which concern Middle England concern the elderly and poor on the rundown council estates even more.

'The Labour Party is back in the mainstream today as the party of the majority, and our task is to unite the vast majority who work for a living, who need to work for a living, who have to get there on merit, against the entrenched interest of the privileged few whom the Tories represent. That's a very powerful message not just for the middle class but for those who are trying to get into that bracket too.'

The question is whether Labour activists of a traditional stripe will accept that the 'mainstream' is where they want Labour to be. In his last Independent interview, at the end of June, Blair said that removing the 'dark corners' of Labour's past was what gave it a new confidence to take on the Tories. But isn't the 84-year-old Clause IV of the party constitution which promises the 'common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange' just such a 'dark corner' for a party of the dynamic market?

In his most recent pamphlet, the Fabian MP Giles Radice argues that nothing would symbolise the party's transformation more than for Blair to replace Clause IV. Blair says the key priority is to make clear the substance of where Labour now stands, rather than the form of words that appear in the constitution. He's not saying words don't matter, rather that the repositioning of a 'new left' Labour Party is more important.

So is the Clause IV question still open? 'These questions are always open. The debate has been going for a considerable period of time. Neil Kinnock has written about it. Jack Straw has written about it. I wouldn't want stop debate in any event. People are quite entitled to raise it.'

Of course, one - rather small - section of the party is already fretting openly over that repositioning. At the weekend, in his most pointed complaint yet, Peter Hain, MP for Neath, wrote, 'The proverbial floating southern voter is not impressed by soft-focus smiles with no substance . . . (or) leaders who dodge questions about support for the railway signalmen or appear to want higher defence spending or lower taxes than the Tories.'

For a party leader famous for 'warm words' Blair shows an unexpected glint of steel in discussing criticisms of the new Labour Party from a - pretty marginalised - section of the Parliamentary left. 'Peter should start to grow up, stop making a political living out of attacking his own party and realise there are more constructive ways of getting into the newspapers.' The Hain critique of Labour's new economics is the same 'attack as the Tories make and if people like Peter want to engage in debate then they should debate what we're actually saying and not a version of what we're saying, which is usually to be found in the Conservative press.'

There is, Blair acknowledges, a more 'intelligent' criticism, promoted for example by Roger Berry, MP for Kingswood. He argues that the economy will have to be pump- primed before what he describes as 'the process of reshaping and reordering priorities' can begin.

Blair points out that Labour produced a crash employment and investment programme before the last budget and in time will do so again. 'But first let us agree that those should be the priorities for a Labour government and that the priorities pursued by Tories are wrong. The notion that we should come along now to people who have suffered the equivalent of a seven pence rise in the standard rate of income tax and tell them if were in power we are going to bump up their taxes even more is absurd; it's not just daft politics - it's not right. '

Blair remains equally scathing about the argument that Labour may now have a position but has no policies. 'The canard that we don't have policies is nonsense. In fact, the Labour Party's problem, if anything, in the last 15 years is that it has had policies on everything from stray cats to world disarmament.' Those who hanker after past rafts of Labour policies, he says, 'actually mean . . . particular policies which ended up losing us votes rather than winning them.

'Where I accept there is work still to do . . . is in putting the flesh on that intellectual framework that we've developed. That's our next task and we will do it. But we are 18 months or two years off a general election and I have no intention whatever of outlining tax or spending plans in advance of when it is right to do so.'

(Photograph omitted)