THE BRITISH Labour Party leader, Mr Tony Blair, has pledged that "a great, radical, reforming government" will build "the Decent Society" as the foundation for "a new age of achievement for Britain".
In his keynote speech to the Labour conference the last before the next general election Mr Blair offered his personal "covenant" with the British people, promising Britain could become "the skill superpower of the world". And, as expected, he said that "education, education and education" would be the "three main priorities" of his government.
Mr Blair's 65 minute speech before a packed Winter Gardens was distinctly presidential in style, and American in its presentation. In a broad sweep of policy pledges and aspirations, Mr Blair contrived to please the party's left, while affirming that fiscal prudence would be the hallmark of his government, and leading an audacious raid into traditional Conservative territory.
The "New Labour" leader declared his was the party to enable people to do better, the party of small business, and of law and order. The party had changed he affirmed, and was "coming home" as `the people's party'.
Mr Blair was heard in near silence as he told his party why it had had to change. Recalling the moment when he knew the 1996 election was lost, Mr Blair related a conversation with a Midlands voter. A self employed electrician, born of Labour parents, this man had bought his own home, established his own business, was doing nicely and explained, "So I've become a Tory.
In that moment, Mr Blair told the conference, he understood why a generation had grown up under the Tories. People judge us on their instincts about what they believe our instincts to be. And that man polishing his car was clear. His instincts were to get on in life. He thought our instincts were to stop him. But that was never our history or our purpose.
Signalling his determination not to repeat past mistakes, Mr Blair declared Labour would be "the party of sound finance and good housekeeping".
In an echo of the Thatcher promise, Mr Blair said Labour would keep interest rates and inflation low. Defined targets would be set and adhered to. Losing control of public finance isn't radical," he told delegates, "it's just reckless."
And he confirmed newspaper headlines proclaiming Mr Gordon Brown his "iron chancellor". To less than widespread laughter, he went on. "They say it's easier to get past security at our conference without a pass than get a spending commitment past Gordon. In case anyone's in any doubt that's the way it will stay."
However Mr Blair's warnings of rigorous spending policies were relieved by a number of announcements which cheered the party faithful, and won some of his most sustained applause of the day. These included the restoration of trade union rights to workers at GCHQ, a proposed ban on private ownership and possession of handguns, scrapping the Tory internal market in the National Health Service and creating a directly elected authority for London.
Mr Blair pledged to lead in Europe while making it clear that "I will not scrap Britain's veto in Europe." Like Mr John Major, he said Britain's options on the single currency "should remain open, to be determined according to the national interest". And while he said any change "will only come about with the consent of the people" his speech stopped short of a pledge to put the currency issue to a referendum.
Announcing his "performance contract" for government, Mr Blair vowed that by the end of a five year term he would have increased the proportion of national income spent on education reduced the proportion spent on welfare reduced spending on NHS bureaucracy and increased it on patient care cut the number of long term unemployed, and reduced by over half the number of young people unemployed halved the time it takes to get young offenders to court cut class sizes in primary schools kept his promises on tax devolved power to Scotland Wales and the English regions' and built a new and constructive relationship in Europe.
In a final rallying cry, Mr Blair declared. I say to the Tories enough is enough. Enough Be done. Be gone. The glory days of Britain are not over. But the Tory days of government are."
In the section of his speech dealing with Northern Ireland, Mr Blair vowed to give priority to the peace process, and to bend all his "force and energy towards it. And he has pledged "the search for justice and reconciliation" will proceed with or without the paramilitaries.
"No leader, with this nation's interest at heart, could do anything other than see this peace process through with the Irish Government and the parties in Northern Ireland." And he promised "It will be every bit as much a priority for me as for John Major. All the force and energy I have will be bent towards it. We have been responsible in our actions over the peace process from the outset. We will continue to be so.
Addressing Sinn Fein and the loyalist groupings as well, Mr Blair said. "You have your chance to take the path of peace. It is your duty to take it as members of the human race. Honour it and you shall play your part. Fail in that duty, and I swear to you the search for justice and accommodation will carry on without you. The choice is yours.
Dr Mo Mowlam will refer to Northern Ireland later today when she responds to a general debate on constitutional affairs on behalf of the party's National Executive Committee. But there will be no separate Northern Ireland debate.