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Wednesday, 11 September, 2002, 13:58 GMT 14:58 UK
"Red" Charlie woos unions
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
Kennedy looked for wider support

He will hate the nickname - but compared to Tony Blair's TUC performance, Charles Kennedy was in danger of attracting the tag "Red Charlie".

The Liberal Democrat leader came to Blackpool in at attempt to persuade trade unionists that his party was at least as good a bet as Labour - if not better - for their support.

The Lib Dems already win around 20% of the votes of trades unionists and he was here to woo more of the remaining 80%.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair was cold shouldered
He also wanted to boost the existing co-operation between the union movement and his party on key areas of workers rights, Europe and public services.

And he lost no time in latching onto the mood of the conference which, less than 24 hours ago had given Tony Blair the cold shoulder.

Proud wrecker

Minutes before he made history as the first non-Labour leader to address the conference, GMB union firebrand Mary Turner had led an angry assault on the government's plans to bring the private sector into the public services.

Wearing a T shirt emblazoned with the slogan "proud to be a wrecker" she tore into Tony Blair for the policy.

Before her, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis had taken a similar tack, accusing Mr Blair of ignoring union concerns

He was angry at the "brave new world" of New Labour which was privatising public services, he said, and expressed his "pride" in those union members who recently went on strike and are threatening more.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis
Prentis proud of strikers
Mr Kennedy told them: "We will listen. Mary, you will not catch the Liberal Democrats dismissing the trades unions as wreckers."

This brought the inevitable clatter of applause, as did his demand for more worker consultation in the workplace.

Liberal history

He was also talking their language when he dismissed the US model of capitalism as "shop-soiled and tarnished" and pointed to Europe as the way forward.

And he won a few laughs, particularly when he told them he wasn't asking for their cash: "chance would be a fine thing."

There is also no doubt he hit the mark with many when he called for national insurance money to be ring-fenced, renamed the NHS contribution, and spent purely on the health service.

Unsurprisingly - and hence the mischievous nickname - his speech focussed on the Liberal bit of his party's past record.

"There's a pleasing sense of historical continuity here," he declared before reminding those who needed it that it was Liberal, Beveridge, who pioneered the welfare state.

Decent man

He went on to throw jibes at Margaret Thatcher, a sure-fire crowd-pleaser and express his fury at the way workers were not consulted over their futures by heartless bosses.

He stressed the common ground between trade unionists and the Lib Dems on Europe and the single currency.

And he was guiven a warm , if reserved, round of applause at the end.

There was no great animosity towards him and most here probably believe him a straight forward, decent man who shares many of their concerns and beliefs.

But this is a partnership that, warm as it may be, will never be consumated.

The BBC's Stephen Cape
"Mr Kennedy's anxious to develop a relationship with the movement"

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See also:

11 Sep 02 | Politics
28 Dec 01 | Politics
11 Sep 02 | Business
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