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Friday, September 24, 1999 Published at 12:41 GMT 13:41 UK

UK Politics

Blair's crucial conference

Tony Blair will face calls to increase public spending

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair will arrive in Bournemouth for his third party conference as prime minister acutely aware it could prove his most difficult.

Many Labour activists are deeply disappointed at the progress made by their government, and will be looking for reassurances that they will soon see real movement in key areas like health, education, welfare and transport.

[ image: The SNP's Annabelle Ewing came within a few hundred votes of winning in Hamilton South]
The SNP's Annabelle Ewing came within a few hundred votes of winning in Hamilton South
By-elections in Hamilton South and Wigan on the eve of the rally have underlined the dissatisfaction with Labour across the country and came after the party's defeat in the Euro elections and poor showing in local council, Scottish and Welsh polls.

One of Mr Blair's main tasks will be to try to reconnect with traditional Labour supporters, while not driving away the vital Middle England voters who helped put Labour in power.

The prime minister will come under severe pressure from activists to promise to use Chancellor Gordon Brown's war chest to boost spending on public services in the run up to the election.

And he will face rows over his attitude to the euro and co-operation with the new Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy.

Pro-hunters planning protest

There is also likely to be a row over plans to shake-up the way local parties are organised and run which many activists see as another attempt by the leadership to tighten its grip on the party.

[ image: The Countryside Alliance is planning to mobilise its supporters once more]
The Countryside Alliance is planning to mobilise its supporters once more
The conference also faces disruption by pro-fox hunting groups who have promised to stage a massive protest of more than 17,000 people in opposition to Mr Blair's plans to ban the sport.

If the Countryside Alliance gets its way, the prime minister's keynote conference speech will be overshadowed by their mass demonstration.

Mr Blair, although still riding high in the opinion polls, knows that he has got to convince the conference that, as promised by his election slogan, things really will get better.

And it is a crucial conference as it is just possible it could be the last one before the next general election.

Party on war footing

Many opposition MPs believe, if the economy remains buoyant, Mr Blair will not be able to resist a cut an run poll next autumn.

If he takes that option that could allow just one more conference next September, or the poll could even come before that.

Whatever his decision, he knows that the election campaign has already started and he will seek to put his party on a war footing.

That was one of the main messages from Charles Kennedy at the end of the Liberal Democrat conference and will certainly form a central part of William Hague's speech to his party next month in Blackpool.

So Mr Blair is certain to use his speech to remind activists of the things his government has already done.

He is likely to highlight the minimum wage, the social chapter, the working families tax credit and the general economic performance to insist his government has already achieved much.

He will also have to reconfirm his commitment to meeting the key election pledges on the health service, education and employment before the next poll.

Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam will be answering your calls, faxes and e-mails on Monday live from the party conference in Bournemouth.

Conference Talk with Andrew Neil is at 6.45pm on BBC Two. You can call with your question now on 0345 514614, or e-mail or fax 0171 973 6283.

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