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EDITIONS
Monday, 30 September, 2002, 18:07 GMT 19:07 UK
Blair suffers conference defeat
Gordon Brown
Brown led the attack on the unions' move

Tony Blair has suffered an overwhelming defeat at the hands of his own conference over his programme of using private cash to run public services.


If the government is so right and we are so wrong, why don't the government want a review so they can prove their case to the public?

John Edmonds
GMB

In an embarrassing but predicted setback, the conference backed a motion demanding a full independent inquiry into the effectiveness of the programme by 67.19% to 32.81%.

A motion backing the controversial Private Finance Initiative (PFI) was also defeated as was a call to back the government's approach.

It is only the second conference defeat Mr Blair has suffered since he became leader, the first coming two years ago when the conference demanded a restoration of the earnings link for pensions.

But during a troublesome day for the prime minister, he escaped a second defeat over Iraq when the conference, in effect, backed his policy of urging the UN to deal with Saddam Hussein.

A motion opposing military action under any circumstances was rejected by a margin of three to two in a card vote.

And a call to allow military force after all political and diplomatic means were exhausted and within international law was approved on a show of hands.

Booed

The blow over PFI came despite last-minute pleas from Chancellor Gordon Brown and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott during a dramatic and heated debate at Labour's conference in Blackpool.

Cabinet minister Paul Boateng was booed and slow hand-clapped before delegates voted on a motion calling for an independent inquiry into the system.

Several union leaders lined up to criticise the government's approach.

Now they are insisting that Tony Blair listens to their concerns over the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) - and acts.

Blackpool
The wind was blowing the unions' way
But the prime minister has already made it clear he has no intention of going back on what he claims was an election pledge, and will press ahead regardless of the outcome of the vote.

He sent in his big guns on the first full day of the conference in an attempt to head off the worst.

No effect

In response, the unions switched tactics and dropped plans to demand a halt to the PFI projects, calling instead for an independent investigation into their effectiveness.

That succeeded in maximising the anti-leadership vote. But it is unlikely to have any effect on the prime minister.

Mr Brown said: "Having promised at the election that we would put schools and hospitals first, we must keep our promise to the people.

"When the plans are drawn up, the building workers are there and the money provided, the public will not tolerate delays."

He said it was "a question of trust" between the government and voters.

Take stock

But the debate saw a series of highly-critical speeches by union leaders.

Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh
Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary was built with PFI funds
Frontbencher Paul Boateng was booed and jeered by delegates as he defended the government's policy.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of the public services workers union Unison, said it was time to take stock.

"It's not about abandoning investment in our public services, in our schools and hospitals, nor about putting the jobs of thousands of building workers at risk," he said.

"It's about taking stock, taking a deep breath, taking a long, hard, honest look at where we are now.

"What we cannot compromise on, and nor should this conference, is the need to review the PFI."

Growing anger

And the GMB's John Edmonds expressed the anger coming from many within the Labour movement.

He said: "If the government is so right and we are so wrong, why don't the government want a review so they can prove their case to the public?"

Bill Morris, general secretary of the TGWU, said private finance was a move away from the "founding principles" of the NHS.

And he shouted: "I don't want to move on."

'Fat cats'

Mick Rix of the rail union ASLEF told delegates: "The taxpayer is being ripped off - hospitals which do not work today, which we will be paying for in over 30 years' time.

"The public can see that we are mortgaging our future basically to make the fat cats fatter."

Labour Chairman Charles Clarke said he was disappointed by the vote.

He pointed, however, to the contrast between the 11-1 union vote for the PFI review and the 2-3 split among constituency delegates.

"It is a striking comment on the way in which this debate has reflected the difference in approach between consumer and producer interests in the party and the country," said Mr Clarke.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Andrew Marr
"Despite a powerful speech by Mr Brown, they voted against him by a margin of two to one"
GMB General Secretary John Edmunds
"There will be a change of mood, we'll get our review"

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30 Sep 02 | Politics
28 Sep 02 | Politics
30 Sep 02 | Politics
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