Blair unveils pre-election ‘pledges’

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Tony Blair on Friday set out the ground on which he intends to secure a record third consecutive Labour election victory, amid business disquiet about the potential cost of his commitments.

The prime minister launched a "pledge card" - a familiar Labour election device - after a whistle- stop tour of marginal seats en route to the party's spring conference in Gateshead. He told delegates "not everything has been the way we would want it," but said Britain had made progress since 1997. "And now what we ask people is to help us make the changes necessary to allow our country to move forward."

The speech in effect marks the start of a long campaign ahead of the expected May 5 poll. Labour's six pledges - on the economy, education, health, childcare, crime and immigration - include a promise to allow mothers and fathers to choose how they split paid parental leave. But most of the pledges are couched in aspirational terms, with far fewer concrete commitments than their 1997 and 2001 equivalents.

The absence of specific targets did not assuage business unease about the potential cost of Labour's promises, particularly its commitment to "a rising minimum wage". Employers in sectors with low paid workers warned on Friday that further increases could jeopardise jobs.

The industry bodies conceded that predictions that the introduction of a £3.60 an hour minimum wage in April 1999 would cause widescale job losses have been proved wrong. But they said any significant future rises in the minimum wage - currently at £4.85 an hour and widely expected to top £5 in October - could damage employment.

Gordon Brown will attempt to soothe employers' concerns when he addresses delegates on Saturday. The chancellor is expected to stress the need for Britain to "adapt and change" to the pressures of a globalised economy. Mr Brown is expected to say he wants Labour to become the party "of enterprise, of flexibility and of business . . . the party of managers and employers, as well as employees."

But Kevin Hawkins, director general of the British Retail Consortium, said there was "no justification for further increases to the national minimum wage in real terms. The rise to £4.85 has already cost the industry £1.7bn and already jeopardised jobs."

The CBI employers' organisation has called for "a pause" in increases this year, saying business was "ready to accept a minimum wage of a little over £5 an hour - but not until 2006".

The CBI also warned of the potential costs of the government's pledge to tighten controls on asylum and immigration, which will severely restrict work permits for low-skilled workers from outside Europe. It said employers might turn to the black economy for staff.

The Tories attacked the chancellor's "woolly and meaningless" economic promises, saying the pledge card was silent on taxes. Labour said a tax commitment would be in the manifesto.

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