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Monday, 15 January, 2001, 13:06 GMT
Stepney flooded with ministers
Prime Minister Tony Blair in Stepney
Tony Blair takes to the campaign trail
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

The residents of Stepney could be forgiven for having wondered what had hit them when the prime minister and a battalion of cabinet ministers descended on them.

Outside general election campaigns, east London has seldom been bombarded with so many high-powered politicians in one day.

And of course, that is precisely what Prime Minister Tony Blair's neighbourhood renewal initiative really was: an election campaign visit.

There was virtually nothing new in the announcements made by the prime minister.

Most of them were floated as long ago as last April. And there is no fresh money included in the package.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
The prime minister wants joined up government
Instead, what voters in Stepney were offered was a long-term policy to "spread prosperity to every part of Britain - every town and village, every estate in our cities".

The message is clear, everybody will be better off if they vote Labour at the next election.

And it is no coincidence that inner-cities have been particularly targeted. They are exactly the Labour heartlands which have shown the deepest disillusion with the Blair government.

Core voters

The prime minister is certainly not ignoring rural areas, many of which are included in the 900 wards identified as in the most deprived areas of England.

But critics see the initiative as a calculated attempt to re-engage with some of the core voters Labour fears it might lose at the next election.

Tory shadow environment secretary Archie Norman
Archie Norman attacked the "gimmick"
Conservative spokesman Archie Norman summed up much of the negative reaction to the package when he declared: "This is a re-heated, pre-election gimmick. It's a case of 'you have paid the tax so here are the re-announcements'.'"

Supporters brushed the attacks aside, pointing out that the prime minister has a long commitment to tackling social exclusion and to "joined-up" government which seeks to ensure all Whitehall departments work in concert to tackle problems.

That, they said, explained why so many ministers - including Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling, Trade Secretary Stephen Byers and Cabinet Office Minister Mo Mowlam - were in attendance.

But for many onlookers the event had all the hallmarks of an election campaign visit - and it is beginning to look as if "election 2001" is going to turn into one of the longest campaigns ever.

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See also:

15 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Labour turns its sights on poverty
10 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Boost for inner cities
02 Oct 00 | Conservatives
Hague promises inner-city revival
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