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Last Updated: Saturday, 13 March, 2004, 14:42 GMT
Blair puts on cheerleader act
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News Online political staff at Labour's conference

Manchester was hit by an IRA bomb in 1996
This was Tony Blair's version of "Always look on the bright side of life".

Life in Downing Street may indeed have seemed pretty rotten in recent months - ex-ministers and rebels picking on him; the drip-drip criticism of the Iraq war; even the odd health scare.

The prime minister did not quite raise a Monty Pythonesque whistle to rally the grass roots at Labour's spring conference in Manchester.

But to make delegates laugh and smile, though not sing, he had the kind of self-deprecating jokes guaranteed to go down well among the rank-and-file.

Heart scare quip

A broad grin sprang across his face as he said: "Here's three words you never thought you'd hear me say. Vote for Ken" - a reference to his u-turn in favour of London Mayor Ken Livingstone.

There was a jibe about his famous inability to master computers.

And after a section about heart surgery, the man taken to hospital for an irregular heartbeat quipped; "You can see what I've been studying - what happens to heart patients. That's a joke incidentally guys."

Whenever I hear him speak it reminds me of where we are going in the great run of things
Tania Rogers
Labour delegate
Then there were the lists of Labour's achievements, on the economy, on healthcare, on education.

The 39-minute speech, aimed at reconciliation with his party, did not contain a single mention of Iraq but there were attacks and mockery against the Tories.

Leaning back and forward on the podium, this was Mr Blair as the enthuser, moving away from the kind of "no reverse gear emphasis" seen in recent conference outings.

'Confidence'

Instead, his message was that life might be a "perpetual struggle", he said, again pressing the case for reform. But Britain was "winning".

He accused the Conservatives of trying to ferment national pessimism and his upbeat message was meant to send Labour activists whistling their way from doorstep to doorstep ahead of this June's local and European elections.

The buzzwords were all there: hope, opportunity, new, faith, pride and belief.

"Believe your own experience," pleaded Mr Blair. "This is a time for confidence."

Inspiration

It was an appeal which appeared to win a pretty united thumbs up from his audience, who after all had given up a weekend for their party.

The standing ovation of just over a minute from the 2,000 delegates was mirrored outside the hall.

Lucy Powell, a Labour member from Manchester, said: "It set out a vision for the country. I will definitely go out with a spring in my step."

Tania Rogers, a Labour constituency party secretary from Saffron Walden, Essex, called the speech inspiring.

"Sometimes we forget the achievements we have made because people like you in the press sometimes ask about the things we have not yet done," she said.

"Whenever I hear him speak it reminds me of where we are going in the great run of things and to get on and do it."

Durham City Councillor Les Sheppard said the speech had given him the right kind of vision to take to voters who often did not look too far into the future.

"It was straight to the point," he said. "He did not demean or lower himself to chastising certain individuals.

"It's now up to people like us to put forward the aspirations of the government and particularly of the prime minister."

Unity?

Labour officials say this was the domestic focused speech Mr Blair has been wanting to make and Dave Lancaster, deputy leader of Salford Council said he had pointed the right direction.

"There was a message there to say that we have got to recognise that we have gone beyond the situation we had in the war and we have got to concentrate on what happens internally, including security."

But Mr Blair's attempts to rebuild bridges was not universally successful.

Rachel Garnham, a Labour women's officer in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, London, said: "I was horrified that New Labour is still going. I thought they had dropped that whole thing."

"He has got to change policy if he wants to rebuild bridges and I saw no sign of that.

"He flagged up university top-up fees as an example of the way we needed to go and said we have got to press ahead with reform in education and health.

"That's not what they need, they need sustained investment."

Mr Blair may have most of the delegates in Manchester whistling to his tune but the question now is how far he can get ordinary voters humming along to what seems to be a "things can only get even better" theme.




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