PROPOSITIONS Blair: a man for all classes

New Labour is for estates and leafy avenues alike, says Peter Mandelson

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Tony Blair was putting more flesh on the bones of Labour's new Clause IV yesterday, talking about family values to an audience of mainly professional women: the readers of She magazine.

Doubtless there will be those who take this as further evidence of Labour's drive to take its message upmarket. But this is to miss the point.

The long-suffering residents of the Dyke House estate whom I met in my constituency on Sunday were in no doubt who Tony Blair is speaking for. New Labour's advocacy of duty, civic responsibility and the need to nurture family life addresses my constituents directly.

Yet these are not middle-class or even middle income earners. They feel beleaguered by a combination of lawless young bullies assailing and defacing the neighbourhood, parents who don't care or who have given up, police who are hopelessly stretched, and a government that promises much but delivers little.

These residents are not untypical of working-class communities; indeed, we are probably better off in Hartlepool than most. But the idea that Mr Blair's message of duty and respect for one another, and of civic responsibility, is only of interest to middle-class people is patronising nonsense.

Indeed, the main reason for Labour's exclusion from power in the Eighties was the loss of working-class, not middle-class, support. The central drive to modernise the Labour Party has come from the need to regain the support of both groups.

In Labour's heyday, working-class support ran at about 70 per cent. By 1983, when the party was at its most extreme and unworldly, this figure had fallen to 42 per cent. In 1987, Neil Kinnock arrested this slide, gaining 45 per cent of working-class support; by 1992, Labour was back up to 51 per cent.

By comparison, the movement in middle-class support was much smaller over the same period. Today, the polls show a remarkable recovery in both middle and working-class support.

Middle-class voters have come to New Labour not at the expense of working- class voters but because we are consciously speaking up for the majority: the people's party is back.

Those who argue, therefore, that Mr Blair's recent speeches mean that he has "given up on the working class", as Arthur Scargill said in a debate with me the other day, have entirely missed the point.

Both groups want secure employment, high-quality, reliable public services, streets free from crime, and a sense of fairness brought back to government and society.

Of course definitions of class are difficult, because society is far more complex than it once was. Many working-class people see themselves as middle class, and certainly aspire to be so. Many middle-class people are now experiencing the same sort of insecurity and unhappiness that used to be the preserve of working-class people. But this only shows how right we are to make Labour's appeal not on the basis of class but on Labour's values, and on our programme of national renewal.

The mistake made by many political commentators is to assume that talk of responsibilities and duty, of a strong civic society backing up the individual and prudence in economic policy, are food only for chattering folk. Mr Blair's message of economic modernisation, social justice and strong communities appeals equally to the residents of Dyke House, Acacia Avenue and The Willows. The only irony that New Labour's critics might point out with any force is how much this message harks back to the party's traditional roots and historic success.

The writer is Labour MP for Hartlepool.

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