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Crossing borders: (l-r) Natalie, Noella and Manuk Ocekci travel from Islington to meet PM Tony Blair in Camden

New Journal reporter Richard Osley interviews PM Tony Blair while Town Hall Labour leader Raj Chada looks on

Respect party activists deliver their message to PM Tony Blair

Under-pressure Labour calls in the PM for polls fight

PRIME Minister Tony Blair made an unprecedented bid to boost Labour’s council election chances in Camden last night (Wednesday) with a surprise visit to King’s Cross.
In an interview with the New Journal, he pledged:
n To get tougher on crime.
n To invest in the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead.
n To improve standards in schools.
He did not, however, make any pledges of investment in council housing – a major election issue in Camden and a sore point among voters who are angry that the millions of pounds needed to repair crumbling estates have been withheld by ministers. The money has been frozen since tenants rejected plans to take control of their homes out of the council’s management more than two years ago.
Mr Blair’s unexpected intervention has already been scoffed at by rivals who yesterday claimed it smacked of desperation ahead of the polls, now just two weeks away.
He met senior Labour councillors and other party members on the Cromer Street Estate as candidates began knuckling down for their toughest local election campaign in more than three decades.
The thrust of his message to members was to work hard to show up differences in the battle against crime in Camden and neighbouring Islington, where the Lib Dems are in control. He said crime was on the way down in Camden but not in Islington because Labour was quicker to use tools such as Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos) to crack down on troublemakers. A Labour policy document headed ‘Islington - Camden’s neighbour from hell’ was handed to activists and New Journal reporters.
To hear the argument first hand, Mr Blair had earlier dropped in for a cup of tea with a family on the Islington side of the borough boundaries.
Manuk Ocekci, a Labour supporter living in Rodney Street, Pentonville, told him: “Anti-social behaviour is growing. In comparison to other boroughs, I’m surprised Islington are so far behind.”
Lib Dems last night (Wednesday) countered with claims Islington was the capital’s most improving borough – confirmed by Audit Commission ratings – and that the party was prepared to use Asbos where necessary.
Election fever has been cranked-up in Camden because the borough represents a genuine target seat for opposition parties for the first time in more than three decades. Rivals need to scalp just nine seats to cause a meltdown at the Town Hall. Labour activists have responded by canvassing harder and earlier in previous years.
Asked whether he thought Labour would keep control of Camden, Mr Blair stopped short of a convincing prediction.
He simply said: “I think they (Labour) have done an excellent job here and I certainly think they should be re-elected. That’s a matter for voters and that is why we want everyone to come out and vote them back in.”
At one stage during his visit, Mr Blair blew a kiss to elderly tenants watching his arrival from a third floor balcony.
But he was also greeted with heckling from a small cluster of anti-war protesters and Respect Party members.
Mr Blair ignored the protest and persevered with his law and order message.
He said: “The fact is that Camden has shown in the work that they have done that you can make a real difference to anti-social behaviour and crime. It’s down in Camden and not in Islington. The way of doing it is to use the powers that have been given. The powers are there. The Lib Dems have voted against the powers in Parliament and there are local authorities that are not using them for reasons to do with civil liberties reasons that are completely misplaced.”
Mr Blair also moved to dampen fears over the cash crisis at the Royal Free where 480 jobs and scores of beds have been axed to plug holes in the hospital’s budget.
The Prime Minister – giving a rare briefing to a local newspaper – said that patients would not miss out and pledged £50 million in new investment, presumably on a national level.
He said: “I think it is very important we try and set this in context because first of all a lot of these (job cuts) are actually happening through temporary posts not being filled or vacancies not being taken up. Overall there is a massive amount of investment going to the Royal Free and elsewhere. For all the hospitals right round the country, everyone has got to come into financial balance but I don’t think we should mistake what is happening. The Royal Free is going to continue to go from strength to strength with major investment.”
There was also an assurance that Camden’s education department would not be forced to set-up trust schools – a policy opposed by Labour members at the Town Hall. Mr Blair insisted too that the closure of Hampstead Police Station would not be a problem because new neighbourhood squads would provide an improved response.
But when asked whether the government would provide direct investment in council homes, he side-stepped the issue and would not be drawn further than the comment: “David Miliband (Communities minister) is trying to resolve it. Until he gets to work out what the right solution is, there is not much point me commenting.”
Rival parties last night (Wednesday) described Mr Blair’s visit as a sign that Labour was reaching for the big guns in a drastic bid to hold onto a council regarded as a government favourite.
Conservative chief Councillor Piers Wauchope said: “His visit won’t help Labour because the message on the doorstep is that residents are as fed up with Labour locally as they are with Labour nationally. Camden has been the guinea pig for all of Labour’s policies over the last four years and they have not worked.”
Liberal Democrat leader Councillor Keith Moffitt said that Labour was telling lies about his party’s policy because Asbos were used in Islington. He said that Labour party members would be having second thoughts about being linked with Mr Blair because of disaffection with national policy.
Cllr Moffitt said: “Bringing in the Prime Minister into what is a local campaign is a sign that they are getting desperate.”


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