LibDems set out terms for pact: Polls make an anti-Tory electoral alliance look an inviting proposition but it is unlikely to happen. Colin Brown reports

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Leaders of the Liberal Democrats yesterday set three pre- conditions for an electoral pact with Labour. But the party leaders saw no prospect of a pact being forged, despite opinion poll evidence that it could prevent another Tory government.

A Guardian/ICM poll shows that a Lab-LibDem pact would win a massive majority over the Tories, with 65 per cent of respondents saying that they would vote for the joint candidate. This confirms the findings of a recent Gallup survey, published in the Independent on Sunday, in which 58 per cent of voters said that they would support a pact candidate.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat, is insisting there can be no pact unless Labour distances itself from the unions, adopts electoral reform for the Commons, and embraces the disciplines of market economics.

'The Labour Party would be a drag on us, as it was at the last election, if it did not carry out fundamental reforms because, in those seats we need to win from the Tories, the threat of a Labour government frightened people back into the Tory fold,' one highly-placed Liberal Democrat source said.

Labour campaigners for proportional representation, including Robin Cook and Jeff Rooker, believe that a firm commitment to enact PR may secure Liberal Democrat support for Labour candidates at the election. But Labour leaders are dismissive about the prospects of any formal electoral pact. 'The antagonism between local Labour supporters and Liberal activists is too great to make a pact work,' a source said.

The Labour Party has refused to stand down for the Liberal Democrats in the Newbury by- election, expected to take place on 6 May, the same day as the local elections. Mr Smith acted quickly to scotch rumours that his party would not field a candidate to ensure a humiliating defeat for John Major. The impact on the Opposition and the Tories of a defeat in the Tory heartlands could have been worth the gamble. But leaders felt that not fielding a candidate would have outraged local Labour activists.

Some Shadow Cabinet ministers would have been outraged as well. John Prescott, the spokesman on transport, said: 'There is no question of pacts and no question of Proportional Representation, certainly not before the next general election.'

Dennis Skinner, the Labour MP for Bolsover, also said that there could be no pact with the Liberal Democrats whose support in the Maastricht vote helped - by just three votes - to preserve Mr Major in office. Such diehard opponents are not impressed by the evidence of the two opinion polls.

The poll findings also suggested that Liberal Democrat voters were less frightened than supposed of voting Labour. But Liberal Democrat stategists are sceptical, and doubted whether the poll would translate into votes and seats at a general election.

Conservative strategists are also confident that the threat of a Lab-LibDem pact will never materialise. 'The Liberals on the ground would not vote for a Labour government, it's as simple as that,' one senior Conservative source said.

Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, is planning to exploit the fear of Labour among Liberal Democrat voters in the local election campaign, as was done during the general election. He is targeting that unease in seven county councils where there is a Lab-LibDem administration.

With Mr Smith determined to show that he can win the next election by reforming Labour's electoral appeal, his lieutenants fear that an electoral pact in advance of the election will be seen as an admission of defeat.