British liberals see Blair backing voting reforms (FWD)

Sun Sep 20 22:45:33 PDT 1998

British liberals see Blair backing voting reforms

By Gerrard Raven

BRIGHTON, England, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Britain's minority Liberal Democrats
are ``quietly confident'' that Prime Minister Tony Blair will back voting
reforms that could catapult them to the political centre stage, a senior party
member of parliament said on Sunday. 

Nick Harvey, who chairs the party's campaigns committee, was speaking at a
news conference in Brighton, southern England, where the party holds its
annual conference this week. 

Earlier Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown told BBC television a revision
of the way the 659-member House of Commons is elected could ``change the
landscape of our country politically.'' 

Blair has appointed a commission under veteran Liberal Democrat Lord Roy
Jenkins to identify a proportional representation system that would be
appropriate for Britain. 

Britons will then vote in a referendum on whether they prefer this to the
first-past-the-post system which last year gave Blair a massive 179-seat
majority despite Labour winning just 44 percent of the  votes in a general

According to Sunday's Observer newspaper, Blair is prepared to back a change
which could have cut this majority by more than half, and doubled Liberal
numbers in parliament to 93. 

It could also mean Liberals becoming frequent partners in coalition
governments as elections produce ``hung'' parliaments. 

``We are quietly confident that Tony Blair is likely to do that,'' Harvey
said. ``It seems improbable that he would have gone to the trouble of setting
it (the commission) all up...if he had really had it in mind all along that he
was going to reject what it came up with.'' 

Blair's promise of a referendum followed talks between the Liberals and Labour
ahead of last year's general election on a host of constitutional changes in

His government has already legislated for new parliaments in Scotland and
Wales to elected by proportional representation (PR) systems, amended the way
Britain chooses its members of the European Parliament, and passed a bill on
human rights. 

It has pledged to end the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of
Lords, and legislate on freedom of information. 

These reforms are discussed in a special cabinet committee on which Ashdown
and some party colleagues sit -- the only such committee to have Liberal
members since World War Two. 

But for Liberals the big prize is voting reform for the Commons, where the
traditionally centrist party has just 46 seats after winning a sixth of the
votes in the 1997 election. 

Publicly Blair has been sceptical about the merits of voting reform. ``I
personally have never been persuaded of the case for proportional
representation,'' he said recently. 

But the Observer said he was now prepared to back a watered-down version of
Germany's additional member system if Jenkins proposes it in his report, to be
published next month. 

Under the system, some 500-550 British MPs would be elected in single member
constituencies. But a further 100-150 seats would be allocated to parties in
order to make the result more -- but far from perfectly -- proportional. 

Blair could face opposition within his own party if he backs this compromise,
although any change would probably not come in time for Britain's next
election, due by mid-2002. 

Ashdown faces conference criticism from some Liberals for what they call his
cosying up to Blair, but he terms ``constructive opposition.'' 

Harvey hinted that the constructive opposition policy could not survive Blair
rejecting electoral reform out of hand. 

``We will continue the cooperative arrangement as long as we believe it is
achieving things,'' he said. 

Ashdown told the Observer electoral refom could bring ``a fundamental
realignment of British politics.'' ``We are playing for the highest stakes,''
he said. 

12:49 09-20-98

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