Page last updated at 05:49 GMT, Friday, 24 April 2009 06:49 UK

'Critical' conference for Labour

By Vaughan Roderick
BBC Welsh Affairs Editor

Rhodri Morgan
First Minister Rhodri Morgan appealed to voters to keep faith with Labour

Labour activists are gathering in Swansea for their Welsh conference at a critical moment in the party's history.

Labour is well behind in UK opinion polls and with the government in Westminster mired down by the economic crisis, and the assembly government facing painful spending decisions, delegates are desperately in need of a boost to their morale.

Party members' spirits have been further battered by what are seen as the self inflicted wounds over MPs allowances and the Damien McBride affair.

With the European elections just six weeks away and a General Election to follow within a year, time is short for the party to make up lost ground.

The European elections are seen as a crucial test for the party, with both Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives predicting that Labour could come second or third in terms of the popular vote in Wales - for the first time since the 1930s.

'Low ebb'

Welsh Labour insiders admit that the party is at a low ebb both in terms of popular support and organisationally.

Following last year's disastrous local council results the party has been forced to merge branches in attempt to construct a more effective campaigning force.

Speaking before the conference, First Minister Rhodri Morgan appealed to Welsh voters to keep faith with the party.

He said: "In these difficult economic times Labour does not give up on people.

"We are keeping Welsh people as close to the job market as possible, with training and investment in skills for those who need it."

Mr Morgan also cautioned the party against looking inward, saying that he was "reaching out" beyond the party membership.

"Labour has done the heavy-lifting, with the health service, the minimum wage and devolution, but the work is not done," he added.

'Possible successors'

With Mr Morgan planning to retire from the leadership later this year possible successors are certain to use the conference to raise their profiles, although with party unity at a premium they'll be eager to avoid appearing to be campaigning.

Attempts are also likely to further ease tensions between the party's MPs and AMs following a series of "away days" designed to bring the two groups closer together.

In an article for the "Tribune" newspaper, Wrexham MP Ian Lucas appealed to the two groups to work together across a broad range of issues.

Mr Lucas said that politicians must "shift the focus away from obsession with the processes of Government and towards policy".

The importance being attached to this year's conference is clear from the number of party's heavy hitters who will be addressing the delegates, with Deputy Leader Harriet Harman and her predecessor John Prescott both delivering keynote speeches.

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