Smith plans New Year offensive

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The Independent Online
JOHN SMITH will hit back after recent criticisms of his leadership of the Labour Party with a New Year policy offensive that will include a full endorsement of a Bill of Rights.

This marks a shift for the party which, before the general election, fought shy of formally backing a Bill of Rights to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into British law.

Mr Smith will provide details of his new thinking on the issue in a speech which will also highlight what he sees as declining standards in public life. He believes that, during a fourth term of Conservative government, ministers no longer feel the need to account for their actions.

Labour strategists believe the policy offensive will enable Mr Smith to give his leadership a more distinctive character, following criticism of the lack of radical thought in the party from several Opposition quarters. Nick Raynsford, MP for Greenwich, has said that Labour risked 'sleepwalking into oblivion', and Bryan Gould, the former Shadow Cabinet member, and the Labour Co-ordinating Committee have also voiced concern.

In recent months, shadow ministers have concentrated on opposition to the Government over pit closures, the 'Iraqgate' scandal, economic policy and Europe. Mr Smith wants to move into a new phase where the party begins to propose alternatives.

Economic policy will form a central plank of the New Year offensive, with Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, arguing for greater intervention to tackle unemployment.

Yesterday Mr Brown promised a programme for national recovery. 'The fear of unemployment is still paralysing much of the economy, and is the biggest barrier to consumer confidence and spending,' he said.

On constitutional issues, a Labour working group, chaired by Tony Blair, the shadow Home Secretary, and Richard Rosser, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, will report to the party conference next autumn.

However, Mr Smith has already decided to take a lead on the Bill of Rights, which would spell out a range of individual rights. Roy Hattersley, the former shadow Home Secretary, was a staunch opponent of such a Bill, causing friction with some sections of the centre-left.

Last year, in an attempt to unite constitutional reformers behind Labour, Mr Hattersley modified his position by backing a 'statement of principles' which could act as a 'backstop' where the existing law was found wanting.

The statement, or Charter of Rights, would 'guide and govern the courts where, and only where, the specific law was silent'. Labour, however, went into the last election committed to a Freedom of Information Bill. The Conservatives remain opposed to any Bill or Charter of Rights.

Meantime, debate over social policy looks set to continue this week with a Fabian Society pamphlet written by Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead and chairman of the social security select committee.

Responding to the establishment of the Social Justice Commission, Mr Field will suggest a rethink of welfare policy. He will also challenge the role of the trade unions, arguing that they should adopt a function closer to their orginal role as friendly societies.