Blair's new army are `cautious modernisers'

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If Tony Blair wins the next election, his new Labour MPs are likely to be overwhelmingly pro-European, in favour of changing the voting system and prepared even to contemplate governing in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, according to a survey of Labour candidates.

The picture of an army of cautious modernisers runs counter to suggestions that Mr Blair would face turbulence from a parliamentary party dominated by left-wing Old Labourites.

Of the 42 candidates out of 110 in safe Labour or target seats who responded to questions asked by Channel 4's A Week In Politics programme, two-thirds (27) said that "if other European currencies establish a single currency" Britain should join it. Only eight disagreed, while seven did not know or refused to answer.

Together with recent evidence from a Nottingham Trent University study of Labour MPs, which found that older members leaving the Commons were more likely to be Eurosceptics, this survey suggests Mr Blair would have an unexpectedly free hand on the issue.

The survey found a clear majority (25) in favour of change to a more proportional system of electing MPs, with only 11 opposed. This will further tip the balance towards reform among Labour MPs, who in earlier studies have favoured reform by a small margin.

Last week, Roy Hattersley, the former deputy Labour leader who is retiring at the next election, launched the "fightback" in defence of the existing "first past the post" voting system. But recent signs that Mr Blair favours limited change mean that the present system is unlikely to survive a Labour government. Labour's promise to hold a referendum on the issue will be included in the draft manifesto expected to be approved by the party's National Executive later this month.

The survey of candidates also found they were evenly divided by the question, "Are there any circumstances in which Labour should form a coalition or have some kind of pact with the Liberal Democrats?" Twenty said yes, 17 no.

Peter Mandelson MP, the Labour leader's close adviser, has suggested that Mr Blair should offer posts in his government to Liberal Democrats, even if he were to win a large majority. The survey suggests this might not be as totally unacceptable to incoming Labour MPs as had widely been assumed.

Mr Blair's cautious line on income tax was echoed, with most (24) refusing to put a figure on what they thought the top rate should be. Four said it should be left at 40p in the pound, 13 said 50p and only one said "higher than 50p". More (16) said Labour should not "raise taxes to pay for improved public services" than said it should do so (13), with 13 not saying.

Only on education did traditional views dominate, with three-quarters wanting Labour to "end all forms of selection for entrance to state schools". This contrasts sharply with Mr Blair's speech last Friday, when he suggested that the few existing selective schools would stay.

Labour officials usually advise candidates not to take part in surveys - "most of them are a complete menace", a senior party source said yesterday. Which makes the New Labour flavour of this survey more surprising, as the more loyal candidates might not have taken part.

On one issue, however, Labour candidates are seriously out of line with their leader. Despite repeated warnings against complacency, all but four expected Labour to win a majority at the next election, with one-quarter (nine) predicting a majority of more than 60 seats.