Lib-Lab duo write joint welfare plan

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The Independent Online
LEADING Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs are to compile a joint paper on welfare reforms in a significant first step towards realignment of centre-left policy.

Frank Field, Labour chairman of the Social Security Select Committee, and Charles Kennedy, president of the Liberal Democrats, are to compare their parties' policies across a range of welfare issues in an attempt to establish common ground.

Their paper will range over health, education and social security. It will be submitted to Labour's Social Justice Commission, chaired by Sir Gordon Borrie, which has a remit to review all Labour's social policies.

'Realigners' in both parties increasingly see the way forward through joint policy formation rather than nationally negotiated electoral pacts. Enthusiasts for dialogue argue that their supporters' votes are impossible to deliver to other parties and local co-operation will only come about if party policies are perceived to be growing closer.

Mr Field said yesterday: 'I think people will be surprised about the extent of agreement, and that is something we have to get across to the electorate over the next three years.' The paper will explicitly aim at identifying common policies rather than outlining a series of new initiatives which would require approval from both parties.

Mr Kennedy is known to be sympathetic to dialogue with Labour and was one of about a dozen Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs who held a private dinner last week to discuss realignment.

This week John Smith, the Labour leader, will keep open the option of future co-operation with the Liberal Democrats when he makes his first public comment on Labour's Plant Commission report on electoral reform, which goes to the party's National Executive Committee this week. Mr Smith is expected to propose a two-stage referendum on electoral change, modelled on one in New Zealand. Voters would be asked whether they want to change. If there was a 'yes' verdict, a commission would propose a system which would then require a second referendum.

The Labour leader is not convinced of the case for change and is not enthusiastic about Professor Plant's preferred option, the supplementary vote. Mr Smith's personal caution will be bolstered by a statement this week from a significant number of supporters of the first-past-the-post system in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Mr Smith also faces difficulty over his plans to introduce the principle of one-member-one- vote into selection and re-selection of parliamentary candidates.

Mr Smith went on the offensive over Maastricht yesterday, telling a European socialist conference in London: 'We have fought the Tories every inch of the way over the Social Chapter and we will keep fighting to give people in Britain the same rights as other citizens of the EC.'