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Blair Defends Policies to Skeptical Trade Unions

Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared at a conference of Britain's powerful trade unions Tuesday to defend his government's policies. Trade unions are the backbone of the Labor Party, but the prime minister's popularity has dwindled and he is under increasing pressure to leave office. Some union members were not shy about voicing their disapproval.

Prime Minister Tony Blair walked into the lion's den of the British Trades Union Congress Tuesday, and sustained at least a few scratches from members unhappy with both his foreign and domestic policies.

Speaking in the seaside resort of Brighton, Mr. Blair spoke of touchy domestic issues, such as privatization and immigration. He also paid tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, 67 of whom were British.

But it was his defense of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that drew a mixed reaction of both heckling and applause from delegates.

"Afghans and Iraqis have voted for their governments," he said. "Those attacking them, al-Qaida and the Taleban, Iranian-backed militia, are doing so to destroy those slender democratic roots. We are defending them. We should be proud of defending them. We should be proud of what we are doing to support democrats in Iraq and Afghanistan, proud of it."

When protest placards appeared and some delegates called on him to resign, Mr. Blair appealed to be heard.

"Yeah, you were warmed up already but I'm just getting there," he said. "Look, you can disagree but just listen to the argument, please just for once. It's a democratic debate. Ask a question afterwards, but just listen to the argument."

The trade unions are powerful in Britain and have long been the backbone of Mr. Blair's Labor Party. But some in the union and the party have been sharply critical of Mr. Blair for moving Labor away from its socialist roots in domestic policy, and for his support of President Bush and the war in Iraq on the foreign policy front.

Last week, eight parliamentary members of the Labor Party resigned their government posts, forcing Mr. Blair to announce he will step down within one year. Although he has not given any specific date, he noted that this is his last Trades Union Congress as prime minister.

About a dozen delegates of the Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers Union voted to walk out on Mr. Blair at the beginning of the speech. One of the union's leaders, Peter Skelly, said members felt betrayed by Mr. Blair's rightward policy shift.

"I mean, we're not in the business of walking out," he said. "This is a walkout that has been democratically agreed by our delegation unanimously. And we think this is the time to walk out to show Tony Blair our protest how he's betrayed us, how he and his government have betrayed us as a union and betrayed the trade union movement in general."

On the sensitive subject of immigration, Mr. Blair said immigrants from the new countries of the European Union have helped the British economy.

"I have to say, the evidence is that they have helped our economy and not been a burden," he said. "Ninety-seven percent work full time. Only three percent of them bring their children with them. And preliminary figures suggest that up to 50 percent of them are returning home."

Two new countries, Bulgaria and Romania, are scheduled to join the European Union next year, sparking fears among critics of immigration about a new wave of immigrants. Mr. Blair said new security measures, such as identity cards for immigrants and the fingerprinting of visa applicants, will be implemented within the next three years. He said without such measures, controlled migration is not possible.