Blair victory in keeping Trident

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Political Correspondent

Tony Blair secured the unequivocal support of the Labour conference for his defence policy yesterday, as delegates voted decisively not to scrap the Trident nuclear missile system.

The vote, by 55.8 per cent to 44.2 per cent, reverses last year's traditional embarrassment and removes the last vestige of unilateralism from Labour policy after 15 years.

Combined with votes against a motion to end government support for the arms trade, and another resolving not to debate calls for cuts in defence spending, the results were hailed by Mr Blair as a further significant endorsement of "new Labour".

"This vote shows a new maturity in the party's attitude to defence. At this conference, on issue after issue, we have seen a party, united, sensible, and determined to build the new Britain we want to create," he said.

The Labour Party abandoned unilateralism under Neil Kinnock in 1989, when a policy review document was approved by conference. But conference has consistently faced both ways, by also passing motions to scrap Trident or cut defence spending.

In yesterday's debate, John Reid, Labour defence spokesman, described the anti-Trident motion a "pious slogan". He said: "I understand the sentiment attached to it it. But it is wrong because it is one-sided disarmament."

Gill Collins (Orpington), moving the motion, said: "Trident is a massive, costly white elephant that should soon be with the dinosaurs." But Lee Vasey (Darlington) warned: "The world remains a dangerous place, as Bosnia has shown us. We must ensure that our defence forces have the necessary resources and equipment."

Brian Godsell, of the AEEU engineering union, told delegates: "Defence has been the Achilles' heel of the Labour Party for too long. Now's the time to turn defence into attack."

Joan Lestor, the left-wing MP put up by the National Executive to reply to the debate, warned the motion could be "misinterpreted at a time when there are enormous opportunities for negotiated reductions in nuclear arms worldwide".

Last year's motion to scrap Trident was carried by 54 per cent to 46 per cent. The shopworkers' union, Usdaw, with 5 per cent of the vote, which voted to scrap Trident last year, this year changed its position to support the leadership. But there also appears to have been a substantial shift in opinion among local party delegates.

Unison, the GMB and the engineers voted against the motion, the Transport and General Workers' Union, MSF and Communication Workers voted to scrap Trident.

Janet Bloomfield, chairwoman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, described the vote as "Tony Blair's first blank cheque policy commitment - the true costs of Trident are uncertain and forever escalating". She said that it "runs against the grain of public opinion".

Another motion - opposed by the National Executive because of the effect it would have on jobs - calling on a Labour government to end financial support for arms exports through government agencies, was defeated on a show of hands.