Fri, Oct 03, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Britain's Labour yet divided over Blair

APPLAUSE, RESENTMENT Delegates to the party convention applauded Prime Minister Tony Blair for his strong leadership but the public at large still distrust him

AP , BOURNEMOUTH

Prime Minister Tony Blair left his ruling Labour Party's annual convention yesterday with members still bitterly divided over the war in Iraq and restless over the government's domestic policies.

Blair's unflinching speech to the party, in which he defended sending troops to war and lauded the virtues of strong leadership, earned him fat applause from delegates this week.

But resentment over the US-led campaign to topple Saddam Hussein and dissent over the government's plans to reform public services are simmering.

"The storm clouds are still around," said John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University. "The situation is not terminal for the prime minister, but it will be important for him to regain a clear and consistent lead in the opinion polls."

The five-day conference in Bournemouth, southern England, has been Blair's toughest since he became party leader in 1994 and led Labour to the first of two landslide election victories in 1997.

His popularity has slumped in recent polls and for the first time in his six-and-a-half year premiership, his position has seemed assailable. An poll published on Sunday found 64 percent of respondents questioned last week did not trust Blair and 48 percent thought he should resign. The survey had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

The conference has been bruising for Blair. Opponents of the Iraq war lashed out at the government for taking Britain into war without a second UN resolution.

The prime minister suffered a defeat in a debate about health service reforms, which his critics see as a step toward privatization.

Trade unionists, a diminished but still potent force in the party, warned Blair not to stray any further from Labour's hallowed socialist traditions.

"Unless we put Labour back in the party, we risk putting the party on the opposition benches," said Tony Woodley, general secretary elect of the Transport and General Workers Union.

But for the mainstream of the party, Blair's vote-winning policies and natural charisma still make him the best choice for Labour leader and prime minister.

"I do not think the British public would appreciate a vacillating or weak-kneed government," said Labour member Valerie Shawcross. "The British public admire decisive leadership, and we do too."

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