Blair pledges to purge Britain of `the forces of conservatism'

Andrew Grice
Tuesday 28 September 1999 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

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TONY BLAIR promised yesterday to abandon the caution shown in his first two years in power by sweeping away the "forces of conservatism", which he said were still holding back Britain.

In a highly personal appeal for the trust of his party and the country, Mr Blair told the Labour conference in Bournemouth that the party's "new radicals" would "set the people free" by creating a New Britain based on equal opportunity for all.

The Prime Minister said the time had come to "step up the pace, be confident, be radical". After establishing Labour's economic credentials, Mr Blair now believes he can afford to be bolder. One close aide said: "We can let rip - not on spending, but on policies and ideas."

Mr Blair announced that everyone would have access to an NHS dentist within two years and promised quicker treatment for cancer and cataract patients. There would also be a smart card for people aged 16 to 18, offering discounts to encourage them to stay on at school or college. To combat crime, he said, all offenders would have their DNA recorded on a database, so it could be matched with evidence from any scene of crime.

The Prime Minister admitted he shared the public's anxiety at the slow pace of change since Labour regained power - "the frustration, the impatience, the urgency, the anger at the waste of lives unfulfilled, hopes never achieved, dreams never realised". And although he promised year-on-year spending increases for health and education, he admitted it would take 10 years to turn round the services.

To tackle voters' growing perception of the Government as "arrogant," Mr Blair declared he would "have no rest, no vanity in achievement, no sense of mission" until every child and pensioner had been freed from poverty. He also attacked the "old elites, establishments that have run our professions and our country too long" - accusing them of keeping women, blacks and Asians out of the top jobs and inner-city children out of the best universities.

He sought to reassure his party that he was not a conservative, saying New Labour's "new radicals" should "take on" conservatism on the left and on the right. Labour was the only political force that could liberate the potential of the British people, he said.

Mr Blair repeatedly assured his audience that New Labour remained true to the values of the party's founding fathers 100 years ago, and could now become the natural party of government. "We are rewriting some of the traditional rules of politics," he said. "At last our historic reputation for compassion is being matched with a hard-won reputation for economic competence. From now on, people will vote Labour with their head as well as their heart."

The Prime Minister put "equality of worth" for all at the top of his agenda, saying: "The class war is over, but the struggle for true equality has only just begun."

In today's high-technology world, a failed education was a life sentence on a child, he claimed. "We owe it to every child to unleash their potential. They are of equal worth. They deserve an equal chance."

Mr Blair reiterated his call for a "new moral purpose" - defining it as "strong families cherished by a strong community". His pledge to end child poverty in 20 years was made "not just as a politician but as a father".

Mr Blair insisted Britain's destiny lay inside the European Union, and said the country had to leave behind the "muddling through, the hesitation, the half-heartedness" that had marked the country's relations with Europe. But he stopped short of saying Britain should join the single currency.

Most delegates gave the speech an enthusiastic reception, saying Mr Blair had finally fleshed out his mission and what motivated him. John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general union, said the speech contained "missionary zeal". But Mark Seddon, a left-wing member of Labour's National Executive Committee, said: "The idea that all the great divisions of wealth and power have disappeared, so we can let decent managers run the show is very disappointing."

Peter Mandelson, the former trade and industry secretary, has mapped out the next stage of Mr Blair's crusade to modernise the Labour Party. Writing in today's Independent, he says "nothing short of a revolution in the culture of local organisation is needed". In proposals that will anger left-wingers, Mr Mandelson calls for Labour to set up a "registered supporters' scheme" for people who have not joined the party, so that it becomes more in touch with ordinary people.

Conference reports, pages 8-10; Leading article, David Aaronovitch, Review, page 3; Peter Mandelson, Review, page 4


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