Key-seat candidates opt for loosening union ties

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The overwhelming majority of candidates chosen by Labour to fight its key seats in the next general election and who took part in a survey by The Independent, believe the party's links with trade unions should be loosened still further.

Ninety per cent of those asked if the unions' block vote at the annual party conference should be reduced replied that it should. Forty-two of Labour's key candidates responded to the telephone poll, representing almost half the 87 constituencies Labour believes it must win.

In what must be music to the Labour leadership's ears, after the furore over reported suggestions from a front-bencher at the TUC in Blackpool that the union links were to be cut, 38 said the union vote should be curbed, three said it should not and one said, "possibly."

Showing a remarkable degree of unanimity over something that is not party policy and is highly contentious, most said they wanted the process of greater democratisation, started under John Smith and accelerated under Tony Blair, to continue. Ashok Kumar, standing for Middlesborough South and East Cleveland, said the union votes "ought to be gradually reduced further".

Sandra Obsorne, the would-be MP for Ayr, said the emphasis now was on "individual participation". Several echoed her view, pointing to the ongoing increase in individual party membership as the reason for the erosion of union power. Chris Ruane, the prospective member for Vale of Clwyd, maintained: "The biggest impetus will come from new membership. The link will be reviewed but we should acknowledge our trade union background. We need consultation, not confrontation."

That stress on the need for dialogue and the underlying worry over the sensitivity of severing age-old roots was apparent in several answers. Most, though, were agreed: as far as the scrapping of the block vote is concerned, it is not a question of if but when. David Taylor, trying to win North-West Leicestershire, said: "The trend towards one member, one vote is unstoppable and I support this." Elizabeth Blackman, standing in Erewash, said: "Inevitably there will be change in that direction. I do not think it will be stopped."

Perhaps anticipating storms ahead, several turned the tables on the unions, arguing they have been at the forefront of the push for change. Sylvia Heal, hoping to represent Halesowen and Rowley Regis, said: "Many of the trade unions were ahead of the party in encouraging members to vote individually. That is a good thing which will continue." Gisela Stuart, from Edgbaston, justified the further diminishing of the union hold: "There have been various changes with the trade unions and they are changing."

On another area, bound to pose problems for a future Labour administration - the continued provision of the universal state pension - 83 per cent said it should remain but many went out of their way to add the system needed reviewing. Betty Williams, chosen for Conwy, said: "You can't promise what you can't deliver. We might have a few shocks once we're in." Fourteen per cent of respondents were less committal, saying the pension should not automatically be continued.

The adherence of the Labour leader to socialism has been an issue in the past few weeks. The party's key candidates who were surveyed, virtually all sang the same tune. Asked if they were socialists, 92 per cent said they were. Many said they were "democratic socialists" while others said they adhered to the socialism as enshrined in the new Clause IV. Two passed on the question and one avoided a direct answer, saying he was a member of the Labour Party who believed in social justice and equality of opportunity.

Predicting the top rate of tax under a future Labour government saw them run for cover. Ninety-five per cent said they were unable to suggest a top rate should be. It was an issue that would be decided when Labour gets into power and depended on the economic circumstances at that time.