The Labour Party in Blackpool: Blair to call for unity after day of friction

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR will today issue an uncompromising call on Labour for unity and realism after internal friction yesterday over economic policy was compounded by left-wing victories in the national executive elections.

Mr Blair will use his first party conference speech as leader to win the support of the party for his programme of modernising both Labour and the country, by declaring: 'I want you with me in our task of renewal. I want you with me head and heart.'

Yesterday, the first day of the party conference in Blackpool, was overshadowed by confusion about Labour's planned national minimum wage which exposed the tensions between union leaders and the party high command.

Last night, Mr Blair exercised his authority by holding firmly to his line on the minimum wage and insisting it would be introduced 'flexibly and sensibly'. As the conference bowed to the leadership by approving resolutions free of specific targets, Mr Blair made clear his unequivocal backing for the wage policy.

But he added later: 'Like any decent policy, it has to be sensibly introduced. If it is, it will work. If it isn't, it will cause problems.'

Implementation of a minimum wage - which, in 1992, was fixed at half of median male earnings, or just over pounds 4 per hour - will now be referred to the party's economic commission.

Mr Blair's message followed a day during which Robin Cook, the trade and industry spokesman, had first said that the minimum wage was 'a big step' which might not be taken 'immediately or in one go', but then insisted he had not been suggesting 'phasing in'.

Bill Morris, the general secretary of the TGWU transport union, told the conference his union had 'been put in the dock' for suggesting a level of pounds 4 per hour, and added: 'If it's a crime to stand up for the low paid, I am guilty.'

Mr Cook topped the constituency section of the poll for the national executive, but the elections saw the return of the veteran left-winger Dennis Skinner and the arrival of his fellow Campaign Group member Diane Abbott, along with Jack Straw, the party's environment spokesman and Mr Blair's campaign manager in the leadership election.

The shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, saw his share in the vote rise after a speech which promised an end to the tax priviliges of the 'undeserving rich'.

Conference reports, page 10

Andrew Marr, page 17