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Bill Clinton warns Britain's Labour Party not to go the way of defeated U.S. Democrats

Bill Clinton warns Britain's Labour Party not to go the way of defeated U.S. Democrats

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton sought to boost the badly divided Labour Party Wednesday, warning supporters that if they let Britons take the government's achievements for granted the party could suffer the fate of America's defeated Democrats.
Delegates at Labour's annual conference gave a celebrity's welcome to a president they love far better than the current one, George W. Bush, who is widely despised in the party. Clinton charmed a packed auditorium with a 40-minute speech in which he lavished praise on Prime Minister Tony Blair and Treasury chief Gordon Brown, Blair's likely successor.
He said that because Labour had been so successful in strengthening Britain's economy and modernizing its society, there was a danger that voters would assume the improvements were "just a part of the landscape" and that any party that came to power would make similar choices.
"I have been there," he said, recalling that his administration had cut America's deficit drastically only to watch it balloon after Bush took office. "I say that to remind you that it can change quickly."
With Blair, Labour's most successful leader ever, on his way out of office, the party faces a potentially perilous future. Damaging infighting has tarnished its image and the opposition Conservative Party is surging after nearly a decade in the doldrums.
A fierce party rebellion forced the prime minister to announce Sept. 7 that he'd quit within a year. Blair warned the party to stop its internal battles or risk being punished at the polls in his emotional final conference speech Tuesday.
Some Labour backers worry that Brown, who lacks Blair's charm and polish, will be unable to beat back the conservative young Tory leader David Cameron. But a battle to keep the finance minister from getting the top job could be divisive.
Clinton told the delegates they should be proud of all they'd done to change Britain.
"Your prime minister, his government, your party, have been a stunning success," he said, praising Labour for creating jobs and leading the way internationally on fighting poverty and global warming. "None of this is an accident."
He argued that the party would always have to change its policies to keep up in a fast-moving world, and urged them not to let themselves be cast as supporters of the status quo while their opponents are seen as advocates of change.
Delegate Christopher Wellbelove, a local council member in south London, said Clinton's reminder of the U.S. Democrats' defeat by Bush and his Republicans was chilling.
"We got a very clear warning that if we don't stick together we could lose everything" and give the Tories a shot at winning elections expected in 2009. "It can all be taken away."
He said Clinton's speech made Labour nostalgic for the years when it was glad to see Blair build a close relationship with an American leader. Many in the party have been infuriated by the prime minister's alliance with Bush, particularly on the Iraq war, an issue Clinton didn't mention.
"Everybody kind of wishes he was still president," Wellbelove said.
Clinton spoke warmly of both Blair and Brown, saying they had put Britain at the forefront of anti-poverty efforts and the fight against climate change, issues the former president has pushed since he left the White House.
"We need you to lead the rest of the world," he said.
Rocker Bob Geldof also spoke at the conference, praising Britain's efforts to aid Africa but urging it to do more.
Brown and Blair's efforts ahead of last year's G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, "really altered the parameters of what's doable in politics," he said. "They saved an awful lot of people from going down the tube. ... It must be continued."
Clinton didn't mention the bickering at home over whether he or Bush missed more opportunities to prevent the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but made clear he differed with his successor's approach to foreign policy.
"Since we can't kill, jail or occupy all of our enemies ... we also have to spend some time and money making more and more partners and fewer enemies," he said. "It is so much cheaper to alleviate poverty, put kids in school, fight disease ... in a poor country than it is to fight a war. ... If you spend a little money on this you get a big return."
In a reference to the political damage Blair had suffered at home because of his relationship with Bush, Clinton thanked him for maintaining Britain's alliance with America "through quite a lot of storm as well as occasional sunshine."
He praised Brown for his "brilliant economic leadership" and "brilliant vision of the future," although he did not endorse the Treasury chief's ambition of succeeding Blair. He said as he left the conference that he stood by his recent comment that Brown would be a good prime minister.