Tue, Sep 30, 2003 - Page 6 News List

UK's Labour Party seeks way out of political crisis

REUTERS , BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND

As British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party was searching yesterday for ways to rescue a British government in crisis, Chan-cellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown was expected to signal new economic reforms that may further split a divided party.

Brown was scheduled to address Labour's annual conference at a time when the center-left party is plagued by its worst poll ratings since Blair became leader in 1994.

The Iraq war and planned health and education reforms have alienated Labour loyalists and the unions, while a poll in The Observer newspaper on Sunday showed 41 percent of Labour members want Blair to resign as prime minister before the next election.

But Brown, a favorite to succeed Blair, was not expected to extend an olive branch to the left-wing camp with his speech forecasting more reforms, including the possible introduction of regional pay bargaining -- a move opposed by unions.

"I will ask you to support in the pre-budget report, the next stage of our economic reforms -- employment service reform, planning reform, labor market reform, constitutional policy reform and regional reform as the road to full employment," Brown was expected to say in his keynote speech to the conference.

Brown, though, may appease some members when he stresses the need to get WTO talks back on track and abolish farm subsidies that price farmers from developing countries out of world markets.

He will particularly attack Europe's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), saying: "I am convinced we must do more to tackle the scandal in the CAP."

The conference has been billed as the toughest of Blair's party leadership. Public trust in him has collapsed following the war in Iraq and the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction -- the primary justification he gave for war.

Blair, once Labour's biggest electoral asset, must convince the party that he has not become a liability. Some suggest the time has come for Blair to step aside for Brown, who is seen as more in tune with the party and the trade unions.

But Blair on Sunday dashed any ambitions Brown may have, saying he was determined to stand in the next election and serve a full third term if Labour wins. Health Secretary John Reid even said Blair could fight two more general elections.

Blair, speaking to BBC TV, again denied ever striking a pact to hand over the premiership to Brown.

Despite his dismal poll ratings, Blair was in defiant mood, saying he had nothing to apologize for over the Iraq war.

Blair will at least be spared an embarrassing debate on Iraq at the conference after a motion proposing the debate failed to get enough support on Sunday.

But Labour members are expected to voice their anger on Iraq when Defense Minister Geoff Hoon addresses them tomorrow.

In his speech, Brown will stress that his policies are in line with true Labour values of fairness and opportunity for all.

Brown will say Labour will not abandon economic discipline or fiscal responsibility, according to extracts from his speech released to the media.

He will also say Britain can be a "beacon" to Europe and America by being the model of an enterprising and fair society.

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