Blair attacks 'wreckers' in Labour who stall reform

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair rounded on Labour and trade union critics of his plans to involve the private sector in public services yesterday, comparing the controversy to the battle to rid the party of Militant in the 1980s.

In an impassioned speech to the party's spring conference in Cardiff, the Prime Minister claimed an "unholy alliance of right and far left" was intent on blocking essential reforms to the National Health Service, education and transport.

Mr Blair drew a direct parallel between the opposition he had faced recently from unions and the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock's struggle to expel members of Militant Tendency from the party.

Attacking the Tories' spending plans, which he said would cut £60bn from public services, the Prime Minister said this parliament would be a battle of "reformers versus wreckers".

In his speech, Mr Blair underlined his determination to pursue the plans by attacking the "small 'c' conservatives" within the Labour movement.

The Government now faced the same combination of Tories and left-wingers that Mr Kinnock was presented with when he wanted to modernise the party, Mr Blair said. "Every single inch of the way people told us we were betraying our principles and giving up on everything the Labour Party ever believed in," he said. "We have always had attacks to the right of us and attacks to the far left of us. Those attacks actually meet at a certain point.We were prepared to take on that unholy alliance of right and far left."

In an earlier speech the party chairman, Charles Clarke, was jeered by some delegates when he said the Government wanted to use private money to improve public services such as hospitals. But Mr Blair went on the offensive, urging the party to "hold firm" and back the use of alternative provision to deliver the best services to patients, passengers and pupils.

"Just as we must take on and defeat the big 'C' Conservatives who want to undermine public services, so we must defeat in argument the small 'c' conservatives who believe the old ways will do and who resist reform," he said.

Mr Blair said the battle lines between the Government and the Tories were clear, with Iain Duncan Smith wanting to cut spending to 35 per cent of GDP, equivalent to £60bn. "Our strategy is to build up the public services. Theirs is to knock them down," he said. "Reformers versus wreckers. That is the battle for this parliament."

Although Labour officials were quick to deny "wreckers" referred to anyone other than the Tories, Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, has used the phrase to describe those union leaders who opposed public-private partnerships and the private finance initiative.