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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Labour Rides Wave, but Strains Show

BLACKPOOL, England -- Tony Blair's Labour party Friday ended its last conference before Britain's general election on a high note, more confident than ever of sweeping back to power after 17 unbroken years in opposition.


After backing Blair's election blueprint by an almost Soviet-style margin of 19 to 1, delegates heard a rousing call to arms by deputy leader John Prescott to redouble their efforts in the final run-up to polling day.


"There are at most 200 days to the general election. The countdown starts now," Prescott said in a typically tub-thumping speech.


"Victory is within our grasp after 17 long years. A chance to serve -- that's all we ask. And with your help, and the people's trust, we can win," he said to loud applause.


The speech capped a successful week for Labour that was aimed at cementing its commanding 20-point poll lead over Prime Minister John Major's Conservative party.


Peter Mandelson, the party's campaign chief, said the conference had achieved three important goals -- Blair had set out his vision for Britain; the early manifesto had been endorsed; and the party had been shown to be in step with its moderate, modernizing leader.


"I think that on all three counts we have passed those tests and come out extremely well at the end of the week," Mandelson told BBC radio.


Even Conservative-supporting newspapers conceded that Blair had had a good week.


"Tony Blair has carried his party with him and gained new credibility in his crusade to persuade the electorate that his party can be trusted," the Daily Mail commented on Friday.


The only serious embarrassment of the week was on Thursday when one of Labour's spokesmen in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of parliament, defended a lobbyist at the center of "cash-for-questions" allegations engulfing the Conservatives.


Labour acted ruthlessly to limit the damage by forcing Baroness Muriel Turner, a director of lobbyist Ian Greer's firm, to resign, and contrasted its swift action with the Conservatives' foot-dragging over sleaze in its ranks.


Blair, who became leader in July 1994, underscored his increasingly sure grip on the party when left-wing traditionalists were comfortably defeated in key votes on pensions policy and nuclear weapons.


"Throughout this week, the Labour party conference has demonstrated its commitment to sound public finances and ... opposition to a wish list of spending promises," Brown's deputy, Alistair Darling, said. "New Labour understands that to govern is to make choices."


But some left-wing activists, in a possible portent of trouble for Blair if he does win power, did not try to hide their unease over what they see as the abandonment of Labour's original values.


Member of parliament Tony Banks agreed that Labour must win the election at all costs. But he said he resented the fact that modernizers like Mandelson were demanding loyalty as an excuse to push through changes that made left-wingers uneasy.


"I'm waiting for Peter to drop 'Labour' because it does sound a bit workerist and sweaty," Banks said sarcastically. "We'll just call ourselves the New Party: We're new, we're nice and we won't offend everybody," he said on BBC radio.