Candidates forced to deny coercion

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The Independent Online
Labour responded to The Independent's report yesterday that parliamentary candidates had been coached in the answers to give to our survey - by ordering them to sign a letter, published in today's newspaper, saying they are not automatons.

At a meeting of candidates yesterday morning, a letter was presented by party officials, and those present were asked to sign it. When some candidates objected that this exercise might lend substance to The Independent's claim that they had been marshalled to give the "correct" answers, the official said that signing the letter was voluntary - but that those who decided not to sign had to telephone party staff later to give their reasons.

In the letter, 18 candidates say: "Of course we seek advice from head office on matters of policy, but the answers we give and the opinions we express are our own." One candidate yesterday compared their position to that of Labour MPs: "They are under a three-line whip. Why shouldn't we be?"

The survey of candidates in Labour's winnable seats revealed that the official "line" was that the trade union block vote should be cut below the present 50 per cent share of party conference - a line given in internal briefings for candidates.

The Independent interviewed 42 of the 87 candidates in the marginal seats Labour believes it must win to form a secure government. Of these, 38 said the union block vote should be cut further.

In another development today, supporters of the Labour leader, Tony Blair, are to urge the party to make another dramatic series of internal reforms, including cutting the trade union link and deciding policy by ballots of party members.

The party's annual conference should be turned into a "showcase" for policies decided by the leadership after consultation with party members, according to the Labour Co-ordinating Committee (LCC), the leading pressure group of party "modernisers".

In a report published today, the group says: "Party conference has rightly ceased to be the annual policy-making forum for the party."

And it says Labour should learn from the "poll lift which successful conventions gave the Republicans and then the Democrats this summer in America".

The group, which boasts Mr Blair as a member, argues for an end to policy- making by passing resolutions, and for the abolition of a layer of local party committees.