Mon, Sep 25, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Embattled Blair set for last Labour conference

SWAN SONG Although he's been the party's most successful leader ever in terms of election victories, Blair is facing union protests and mounting calls to quit now

AFP , MANCHESTER, ENGLAND

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is greeted by supporters as he arrives at a reception in a Manchester hotel on the eve of the Labour Party conference yesterday. Members of the governing Labour Party, led by Blair, headed to Manchester for their first annual conference in the city in nearly 90 years.

PHOTO: AFP

Tony Blair was to attend his last Labour Party annual conference as leader and British prime minister yesterday amid mass protests over his government's policies and calls for him to quit now.

In the next five days, the focus will continue to be on exactly when Blair will step down, despite the 53-year-old prime minister having been forced by internal dissent earlier this month to state he would go within a year.

Every word uttered not only by Blair, but also by Chancellor of the Exchequer and likely successor Gordon Brown and other ministers said to be in the running to replace him, will be picked over for hints about the future.

At the same time, Blair -- Labour's leader since 1994 and its most successful ever with three straight general election victories -- faces a rough ride from unions.

On Friday, members of Britain's largest public sector union Unison staged a 24-hour strike in protest at the privatization of jobs at NHS Logistics, which provides everything from food to bandages in Britain's public health service.

A second walk-out is planned for tomorrow, the day of Blair's traditional set-piece speech to grassroots members at the G-Mex exhibition center.

Unison has attacked Labour's health policies, saying they have done "immense damage" to staff morale, and services and manufacturing unions are also angry at the pace of change to protect workers' rights and pensions.

The G-Mex center, a former railway station, is isolated from the rest of Manchester by tight security and a ring of high, steel barriers guarded by armed and unarmed police.

Visitors feel a sense of being under siege which is mirrored in criticisms of Blair and his administration, particularly over Britain's involvement in Iraq.

Labour is trailing the main opposition Conservatives in the opinion polls for the first time since being swept to power in 1997, while a survey this month suggested most Labour members want Blair out sooner rather than later.

A YouGov poll for Channel 4 News television found that 38 percent want Blair to resign in the next few months and 21 percent want him gone by the crucial Scottish, Welsh and English municipal council elections next May.

Tens of thousands of anti-war campaigners, led by his sister-in-law, added their voice to those calls on Saturday by marching around the conference venue and urging him to pull British troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

They also called for a change in foreign policy towards Israel, more support for the Palestinians and for Labour not to replace its ageing Trident submarine nuclear deterrent.

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