Blair heckled as he faces unions for the last time
Tony Blair was heckled, booed and faced a walk-out from union members as he faced the TUC this afternoon for the last time as prime minister.
Trade unionists have spent the last two days discussing how to fight the government’s programme of privatisation, and this afternoon’s address saw RMT members walk out holding banners calling for “public services not private profit”.
Mr Blair was in a bullish mood, condemning those who walked out for “doing what our opponents want us to do” – namely show that Labour was divided – and added: “Let’s have a democratic debate – just for once, why don’t you listen to the argument.”
He opened his speech with a reminder of how far his government had come, and what Labour risked with its continuing infighting – fighting which last week forced him to declare he would quit within a year.
“In case we’d all forgotten, we have had three terms of a Labour government for the first time ever in 100 years of trying,” the prime minister told delegates in Brighton.
He cited the introduction of the national minimum wage, full-time rights for part-time workers and the recent gangmasters’ legislation as examples that “in virtually any objective comparisons of 1997 with 2006, the present wins out over the past”.
But he also looked ahead to the challenges of globalisation facing Britain and called for an approach that is “strong and not scared, that addresses people’s anxieties but does not indulge them, and above all has the right values underpinning it”
This meant opening up markets but also providing strong public services; introducing tough security measures to tackle terrorism; and welcoming migration, but ensuring the rules were in place to control it.
Mr Blair cited the TUC’s own motion when discussing migration, saying they were “absolutely right” to welcome migrant workers, and stressed that organised labour “has a crucial role to play” in the coming debate on how to tackle all these issues.
Asked at the end what he would miss about the congress, now that his final address to the conference was over, the prime minister grew wistful.
“I have always, quite contrarily to what people think, had a respect for what the trade unions have done – healthy trade unions are vital to the health of our democracy,” he said.
“The fact that we do not agree all the time, sometimes none of the time, is no bad thing. But reflect on this, because the problem in doing my job is that you have to take difficult decisions and realise you can’t please all the people all the time.”
“But after nine years you also get a good sense of perspective – when I look back I realise there’s certain things changed in this country for the good.”
Mr Blair’s speech was met with little reaction from the conference floor – a few shouted “bring troops home” when he mentioned foreign policy, and there was a five-second applause at the end.
However, one union leader warned his performance was all about the past, with Tony Woodley, general secretary of the T&G union noting: “We had a fantastic vision in 1997, and persuaded people there was enough in that vision to elect us for three terms.
“But now is the time for fresh vision, fresh ideas, a fresh leader and a fresh campaign to keep the Tories out.”