Candidate's ways are working for Labor Britain's Tony Blair may return his party to power, be next premier

April 14, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PLYMOUTH, England -- It's campaign night at the Plymouth Guildhall. Slick political ads play on a giant screen. An all-female saxophone quartet plays jazz on the stage. "Star Trek's" Captain Picard, the British actor Patrick Stewart, triggers cheers by reciting the opening lines of the American Declaration of Independence.

And finally, they bring out the man who would be British prime minister, Labor Party leader Tony Blair, whose aim is to win the May 1 general election and return his party to power for the first time in 18 years.

Blair works the room. He caresses the lectern and speaks passionately as the last rays of sunlight bleed through the stained glass windows. He preaches his party's new political gospel, sounding like a cross between Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton. It's all about 10-point political contracts with the British people and a yearning for change after a generation of Conservative Party rule.

And 1,500 Labor Party supporters roar. Finally, Blair hits the punchline of the night, shouting of the Conservatives: "It's time that they were gone, taking their lies, their sleaze and their government with them."


So ends another triumphant day of campaigning for the 43-year-old Blair, a man on a mission, bidding to oust Conservative Prime Minister John Major and become Britain's youngest leader this century.

The Conservatives, winners of four straight elections, are burdened by allegations of political corruption, sexual scandals and divisions over Britain's proper role in Europe. They appear exhausted after so many years in power.

But the most frustrating part of the campaign for the Tories is this: They haven't laid a glove on Blair, Labor leader since July 1994.

In British politics, Blair is unique: a glib, telegenic Labor politician with a pedigree of a typical young Conservative.

Blair was schooled at Oxford, where he became immersed in politics and Christianity and played in a rock and roll band, Ugly Rumors.

He became an attorney, just like his wife, Cherie Booth.

And he changed the face -- and content -- of a working-class party, forcing Labor to throw out the icons of socialism. Critics dubbed him as Bambi and then Stalin, the innocent turned ruthless boss.

Yet as Anthony Charles Lynton Blair marches through the countryside rallying voters, it's hard to tell just what he stands for, other than victory.

"This election is about trust," he said April 3 as he presented Labor's campaign manifesto.

"There are no magic wands or instant solutions. What we do say is Britain can be better and that Britain deserves better. And we show how. We do so by promising only what we are sure we can deliver."

Labor's top priorities, he says, are "right in the guts of what moves and concerns people in this country -- schools, hospitals, crime, jobs, industry."

He says he wants to build "a Britain for the many, not the few," a sharp rebuke to the go-it-alone brand of capitalism as espoused by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

But to many here, Blair is merely presenting a warmed over version of Thatcherism. Britain's Iron Lady crushed the unions, sold off the state assets and humiliated Labor during her 11-year reign.

"He's trying to take over my policies," Thatcher said last week.

Others say Blair is simply a shrewd marketer, the candidate as host of an infomercial. The phrases and ideas are borrowed from America. So is the attitude: Just win, baby.

Blair dresses like a stock broker in dark suits, white shirts and print ties. His brown hair is neatly combed. His blue eyes shimmer in the spotlights. And he has an ever-present smile that some have called smarmy.

There's Blair in the belly-of-the-beast, the City of London financial district, giving a lecture to business executives in the penthouse suite of an empty office building.

No more "beer and sandwiches," he vows in a reference to the days when Britain's union bosses set national policy with Labor prime ministers at 10 Downing Street.

The executives eat it up.

"We've got to get beyond the old arguments," says Graham Benson, who runs a film production company.

Then there's Blair in front of a 13th century cathedral in Exeter, talking about community and fairness and the crowd is cheering. Even the true-blue Tories are converted.

"I hope he gets a try," says Joan Whiddon, 64, a life-long Conservative.

Others, though, are not convinced by Labor's new man.

"Blairism equals Blairy ideas. You can't quite grasp them and when you try, they vanish," says Bernard Crick, literary editor of the British "Political Quarterly."

Does it matter that British voters may not know what Blair stands for?

"No. Don't care. The election is not about getting Tony Blair in. It's about getting John Major out," says Robert Worcester, head of Marketing and Opinion Research International.

Yet the British are apparently comfortable with the man and his background.

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