UK Liberals say prepared to end Blair cooperation (FWD)

Mon Sep 21 22:32:10 PDT 1998

UK Liberals say prepared to end Blair cooperation

By Gerrard Raven

BRIGHTON, England, Sept 21 (Reuters) - The close relations between Britain's
two centre left parties would be shattered if Prime Minister Tony Blair
rejected plans for voting reform due to be published next month, senior
Liberal Democrats said on Monday. 

Since Blair formed Britain's first non-Conservative government for almost two
decades last year, his Labour party and the minority Liberals Democrats have
cooperated on a string of projects to reform Britain's constitution. 

Liberal leader Paddy Ashdown has meanwhile followed a policy of ``constructive
opposition'' on other issues which has led to complaints from some of his
followers that he has ``pulled his punches'' in his criticism of Labour. 

Blair has even welcomed five Liberals onto a cabinet committee set up to
thrash out details of plans ranging from the setting up of Scottish and Welsh
parliaments to an extension of civil liberties. 

But a prominent MP and two influential members told delegates to the Liberal
Democrats' annual conference that if Blair failed to back a change to the
electoral system, the Liberals would have to withdraw from this committee. 

``If he rejected it, there would be dismay, and the present model of
constructive opposition could not be maintained,'' said legislator Charles

``Clearly it would seem to me that (in those circumstances) you can't carry on
in the cabinet committee,'' added Lord Dick Newby at the same fringe meeting
at the conference. 

Delegates in the hall were given the same message during a debate on
constitutional affairs. 

``In my view, should Mr Blair reject PR (proportional representation), we
should withdraw from the cabinet committee,'' said Andrew Duff, a member of
the party's policy committee and former party vice president. 

Blair will face a tough decision on the issue when a commission under Liberal
Democrat Lord Roy Jenkins publishes a report at the end of next month. 

It will identify a ``broadly proportional'' system which Blair has promised to
pit against first past the post in a nationwide referendum. 

Liberals are gloomy about their chances of winning this poll unless Blair
actively backs change. But the Prime Minister must tread with care because his
cabinet and party are deeply split on the issue. 

However, Ashdown told BBC radio on Monday he was optimistic Blair would come
out in favour of reform. ``If you want me to guess, I guess it is likely that
he will accept the outcome of the Jenkins Commission,'' he said. 

According to press speculation, Jenkins will recommend a system under which
500-550 MPs are elected in single member seats, with another 100-150 seats
distributed among parties to make the result provide a fairer balance between
votes cast and seats won. 

Liberals are critical of such a system even though it would have more than
halved Blair's massive parliamentary majority, and have doubled the minority
party's haul of 46 seats, if used at the last election. 

They traditionally favour the single transferable vote system used in Ireland,
in which electors number candidates in a multi-member constituency in order of
preference, saying this would be both more proportional and more voter-

But conference delegates appear ready to accept a compromise. 

``This is the best opportunity (for reform) we will have in our political
lifetime,'' said MP Lembit Opik. ``We should go into the process in the
expectation of finding something we can support.'' 

12:20 09-21-98 

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