2000 – Blair’s Leader’s Speech to Conference – report
26th September, 2000 Conference:
(Original report here)
The prime minister has admitted Labour made mistakes over pension rises and the Millennium Dome – but has pledged to make amends. Setting out an ambitious vision of his plans for British society, Tony Blair spoke of a host of initiatives to improve the health service, crack down on crime and boost prosperity.
The country faced a stark choice between the Tories, who would make £16bn of cuts in public services, and Labour which would invest for the long term, he said.
But he offered no fresh promises to hauliers and farmers whose protests over fuel taxes nearly brought the country to a standstill, insisting the government was listening to them – but also had to listen to people who wanted more money spent on services such as the NHS.
Conservative leader William Hague said Mr Blair’s speech amounted only to the usual cocktail of meaningless statistics and empty promises.
People worried about fuel prices and high tax rates wanted to know whether Mr Blair had taken note, Mr Hague said: “The fact is that he showed no sign of having heard a thing.”
Mr Blair was giving his keynote speech to the Labour conference in Brighton, anxious to boost his popular support following the crisis of the past two weeks, which has pitched the party to its lowest ebb for eight years.
‘I would do differently next time’
In a one-hour speech which mixed pride with some words of humility, the prime minister admitted Labour had come in for some of its harshest criticism.
“After the events of two weeks ago, it’s no wonder the government has taken a knock,” he said.
“It happened on my watch and I take responsibility,” he declared.
He admitted ministers had been wrong over the Millennium Dome and the 75p increase in pensions, leading people to think they were not listening.
“And, yes, there are things we have done that have made people angry and we should be open enough to admit it,” he said.
“The Dome. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and if I had my time again, I would have listened to those who said governments shouldn’t try to run big visitor attractions.
“75p. I tell you now, as Gordon made crystal clear yesterday, we get the message.”
Other good causes
On fuel duty, Mr Blair said: “I owe you an explanation.”
He said he was listening to stories of hardship by hauliers, farmers and ordinary motorists.
But he insisted the world was full of competing causes, and there were choices to be made.
He also had to listen over NHS underfunding, investment in schools, police on the beat, public transport, keeping interest rates low for home-owners and over pensioners.
“I am listening. I hear. And I will act,” he promised.
“It’s not an arrogant government that chooses priorities, it’s an irresponsible government that fails to choose.”
On pensions, he reiterated the promises made by Chancellor Gordon Brown on Monday, to target more help at middle- and low-income pensioners.
Those who have saved all their lives but are not wealthy would also be helped, Mr Blair promised.
“It is right they share in the nation’s wealth,” he said.
There has been growing discontent within the Labour party and among campaigners about the level of the state pension.
Mr Blair said he had a vision of a second term in office worth fighting for.
And he evoked applause from his audience with pledges to improve the health service.
This included vastly increasing the spending on cancer research by matching charity donations pound-for-pound and increasing the scope of the breast cancer screening programme.
He promised a crackdown on youth crime, giving police greater power to issue on-the-spot fines, close down pubs where fighting breaks out, and to clamp down on organised crime.
“It’s time for zero tolerance of the yob culture,” he declared.
Education spending would continue to rise, and an extra £1bn would help provide schools with internet access, he said.
Tory changes under attack
Watched by a packed hall, including former party leaders Michael Foot, James Callaghan and Neil Kinnock, the prime minister attacked the “irony of the Tory years”.
He accused the Conservatives of achieving the opposite of what they claimed and offering short-term tax cuts.
And Mr Blair hailed a list of Labour’s achievements since coming to office, such as reducing unemployment and investing in schools and hospitals.
“The people’s priorites are our priorities. This is a second-term vision worth fighting for.”
He said: “For us, this government, this party that believes passionately in a Britain where everyone, not just a few, get a chance to succeed and knows the Tories will only take us backwards, we now know we are in a fight and it’s a fight I relish.”
There were standing ovations for Mr Blair both before and after he spoke.