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Center Stage

Wed., April 30, 1997

The Labor Party was a mass movement born in the mines, mills and dockyards of Britain, but the Labor Party in its current form is largely associated with one man: Tony Blair.

In three years as party leader, Blair has changed the party’s creed, branded it “new Labor,” and put it in position to win an election Thursday for the first time in 23 years.

Suppressing the ideological battles that preoccupied the party a decade ago, and embracing many of the policies of the governing Conservative party, the 43-year-old Blair has led Labor on a single-minded quest for power.

If he succeeds in this week’s national elections - and the polls indicate he will - Blair will be Britain’s youngest prime minister since Lord Liverpool, who was 42 when he assumed office in 1812.

“What Tony Blair has particularly done is to admire and, in a sense, imitate Margaret Thatcher’s techniques at the height of her powers,” says Roy Hattersley, deputy leader of the Labor Party in the last election.

Critics inside and outside the party charge that there’s little substance behind the catchy slogans and the high-wattage grin of the leader. The common accusation is that charismatic Blair has traded principles for popularity.

“Isn’t the real truth that you are a politically hungry chameleon?” a talk-show caller demanded of Blair on Tuesday.

Not so, Blair responded: “I refuse to believe that the Labor Party should either face a choice of being electable and unprincipled or principled but unelectable.”

Blair says voters face two fundamental questions in the elections: Do the Conservatives deserve a fifth term? Is new Labor really different from the party that lost the last four elections?

Specific issues of government and policy take second place to those larger questions, but Blair seeks to reassure his followers that the party still leans left.

“I want the left to realize that if we win this election, we will have done so without ceding any ground that cannot be recovered,” Blair said.

“I am going to be a lot more radical in government than many people think,” he promised.

Blair’s background doesn’t suggest a future as a radical. He grew up in a comfortable middle-class home in Durham, and his father, a law professor, headed the Conservative Association there.

In the early 1970s, Blair went to Oxford University, where he was lead singer in a rock band called Ugly Rumors. Even then, the driven young man was apparent beneath the shoulder-length hair and skin-tight trousers.

“I was amazed by how keen he was on the idea of rehearsal,” band member Mark Ellen told Blair’s biographer, John Rentoul.

At Oxford, Blair also became acquainted with Peter Thomson, an Anglican priest from Australia who led long and influential conversations with students about theology and politics, and the idea of community.

Blair went into trade union and industrial law after graduating, marrying fellow barrister Cherie Booth in 1980. They have three children.

He started making a mark in the Labor Party in 1992 when he was appointed spokesman on crime and justice. He set out to take the law-and-order issue from the Conservatives, and make it Labor’s.

“I think it’s important that we are tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime too,” Blair said in 1993.

Labor annexed other Tory issues in a similar style. On taxes - a winning Conservative issue under Thatcher and her successor, Prime Minister John Major - Labor has pledged no increase in the top rates, and no increase in spending overall.

“What I can promise is that there will be a fresh start with different priorities, different values - and bit by bit we will rebuild the education system, the health service and the welfare state in this country,” he says.

Blair completed the work of two predecessors in revamping the Labor Party after it polled just 28 percent of the vote in 1983.

Blair won his seat in the House of Commons that year on a Labor platform advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament, higher government spending, more borrowing, and withdrawal from what is now called the European Union.

In its eagerness to woo Conservative voters, the Labor Party now embraces free-market capitalism, is enthusiastic overall about European Union, has said it will keep to current spending ceilings, and plans to retain Britain’s nukes.

Or as political satirist Rory Bremner says in his Tony Blair light-bulb joke: “Why change it if it’s working?”


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