Lib Dems and unions 'ready to form an alliance'

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The Liberal Democrats are prepared to forge fresh links with the unions to challenge the Government on public services, Charles Kennedy, their leader, said yesterday.

In his keynote speech to end the party's spring conference, Mr Kennedy warned Labour that its special relationship with the trade unions was under threat because the Government had stopped listening to union members.

Attacking the Government for its record on transport, health and education, he disclosed that he had agreed to meet John Monks, general secretary of the TUC.

"Labour may not be able to count on union support much longer," Mr Kennedy told delegates. "Now, I'm not inviting any trade unions to become our paymasters, but I'm certainly willing to have a dialogue with trade unionists, and I'm not sure you can say the same for New Labour any more."

Matthew Taylor, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, argued yesterday that the party was a natural home for public-sector workers such as nurses and teachers. The party is, though, unlikely to offer guarantees on pay and pensions protection for public-service workers who are transferred to commercial firms, which the unions are seeking.

And one senior MP has privately voiced concerns about the party being seen to side with unions fighting the reforms and increased private-sector involvement that the Liberal Democrats support.

Meanwhile, Mr Monks welcomed Mr Kennedy's offer, while stressing the TUC was not ready to sever links with Labour. "It seems to me that the TUC should have a good relationship with the mainstream parties," Mr Monks said on GMTV's Sunday programme. "Charles Kennedy has views similar to the TUC's on Europe, and on public services there are many areas of overlap."

Bill Morris, leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, said he was "ready to work with anyone who shares our commitment to defend public services and supports the promotion of workers' rights".

But Ken Jackson, head of the Amicus union, told Mr Kennedy not to "bother wasting a phone call". And the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, said talk of a Labour bust-up with the unions was premature. "We have a special relationship, and that continues. But that doesn't mean to say we agree on every dot and tittle of policy," Mr Prescott said on BBC1's Breakfast with Frost.

Mr Kennedy challenged his party to "live a little dangerously" and to frame fresh ideas to push back the boundaries of political debate. "The debate will be lively. We won't always agree with each other. That's all right," he told delegates in Manchester. "As David Steel used to say, if we're not prepared to live a little dangerously, we risk not living at all."

The party alarmed some of Mr Kennedy's aides by voting in favour of legalising cannabis and removing jail terms for use of all other drugs, including cocaine and heroin.