Blair seeks to appease unions with pledge on new rights

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Tony Blair received a sceptical response from grassroots trade unionists yesterday despite wooing them with a string of pledges and admitting "it's time to show I'm back" on employment issues.

Tony Blair received a sceptical response from grassroots trade unionists yesterday despite wooing them with a string of pledges and admitting "it's time to show I'm back" on employment issues.

Mr Blair gave Britain's union leaders much of what they are demanding on employment rights and the role of unions, but received just 20 seconds of applause from those who will be expected to provide the bulk of Labour's votes at the expected general election next year.

He made an admission that politics had been dominated by foreign affairs and the Iraq war, telling delegates that while it might have appeared that he has been obsessed with foreign affairs, he had always had issues near to home in mind.

He said: "I acknowledge it hasn't seemed like that. I have never been away from those issues that make daily life good or bad for our people. But too many people watching the news every night might think I have. And if I can put it like this: even if I've never been away, it's time to show I'm back."

The distrust of the movement's foot soldiers stood in contrast to the response of the leaders of the country's biggest unions, who welcomed Mr Blair's pledge to honour an agreement thrashed out with them at the Labour Party's national policy forum in July.

Looking uneasy with his role as left-wing appeaser - and clearly with the looming election in mind - Mr Blair even took the trouble to encourage workers to join a union.

The Prime Minister, however, refused to express regret for his alliance with America in Iraq - possibly the main reason for the muted response to his address. He said: "I can't apologise for what I think about the world since 11 September or what I have done in the war against the vicious terrorism we face. That would be insincere and dishonest."

On domestic issues, however, Mr Blair stuck to the script that the senior union leaders would have liked to have prepared for him.

Mr Blair offered pledges on a series of policies for which union leaders have long been pressing action, even exceeding the expectations of some in the conference hall.

He made his first public promise that Labour will deliver on its accord with the unions drawn up at the party's policy forum at Warwick in July.

The deal includes a pledge that an entitlement to a minimum of four weeks' paid leave a year would not include public holidays and a commitment to end the "two tier" workforce in public services.

Mr Blair insisted he would not renege on the deal and delighted union leaders by giving a highly detailed breakdown of the new measures.

He said: "I come here to praise Warwick, not bury it. To advocate social partnership, not belittle it."

New initiatives include a promise to consider extending financial support to 19- to 30-year-olds to allow them to gain A-level equivalent qualifications. He said the Government would create an extra 100,000 modern apprenticeships by the end of 2006 and said ministers would accept the European directive on agency workers, which gives temporary staff the same employment rights as permanent employees.

Mr Blair's extensive package of policy proposals also included extra support for carers, backing for legislation to protect workers from the actions of animal rights extremists and a pledge to back legislation to regulate gangmasters.

Mr Blair responded to a direct call from employees' leaders to promote union membership, although he stopped short of giving it his full personal endorsement. He said: "To people at work wondering whether membership of a trade union has anything to offer them, I would say: go and see. See what a modern trade union can do; see the breadth of services they provide; see the help in troubled times they can give; and if you want to, as is your democratic right, join."

Mr Blair drew heavily on his first speech to the Labour Party conference as employment spokesman in 1990, insisting that his pledges had been delivered. He said he "got out" the speech over the weekend. In reality, however, Downing Street officials had to find a copy of the speech in the archives of the Museum of Labour History after scouring No 10 for the long-lost document.

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