MANCHESTER (Reuters) - Gordon Brown, who takes over as prime minister this week, vowed on Sunday to revitalise the Labour Party and learn from the “divisive” Iraq war.
Brown will replace Tony Blair, who is retiring after 10 years in power with his popularity badly battered for joining in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Taking over as party leader on Sunday, Brown said Labour needed a soul to complement its policies.
“As people’s aspirations and priorities change, we the Labour Party must renew ourselves as the party of change,” Brown, who has served as chancellor for the past decade, told a Labour meeting in Manchester.
“The party I lead must have more than a set of policies, we must have a soul,” he said to thundering applause.
He said health, education and ending child poverty would be his priorities when he becomes prime minister on Wednesday.
Focusing his sights on a fourth straight term in power for Labour, Brown, 56, said the party needed to be “reborn” as it was under Blair to end its 18-year-stretch in opposition in 1997.
He appointed a campaign coordinator to be ready for an election whenever he decides to call it but Brown has until 2010 -- when Labour’s five-year term ends.
The Liberal Democrats said he had no legitimacy because he was unopposed in taking over the Labour leadership and he will automatically become prime minister.
“He should seek a mandate immediately,” said Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell.
Labour delegates were enthused by Brown’s performance, saying he had dispelled doubts over his ability to wow a crowd and step into the shoes of Blair, whose ease of manner and public relations skills helped win three straight elections.
Blair and Brown publicly buried the hatchet after a decade of rivalry and sniping between their camps. Blair called Brown his friend “for over 20 years” and gave him a warm handshake.
Brown praised Blair’s leadership, even as he called for a party makeover. The standing ovation and the blaring pop music, however, were characteristic of the Blair era.
Brown pledged to give party members a vote on policy-making. But he said there would be no backtracking on Blair’s public service reforms that have angered parts of Labour.
“If people think we will achieve our goals in the future by retreating to failed approaches of the past, then they have not learned the lessons I have learned from the last 10 years,” he said.
Brown accepted the Iraq war had been “divisive” but said there would be no quick withdrawal of British troops, as many in Labour want.
He vowed to build “the strongest multilateral approach” to security challenges, saying: “We will meet our international obligations, we will learn lessons that need to be learned.”
Public disillusionment after a decade of Blair and anger over the Iraq war have meant Labour has lagged the Conservative Party -- revived under youthful leader David Cameron, 40 -- in polls since last October.
But Brown’s coronation coincided with a new poll on Sunday, in The Observer, that put support for Labour at 39 percent and the Conservatives at 36 percent, giving Brown a welcome but expected boost.
Additional reporting by Peter Graff in London
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.