British Liberals in sight of power, leader says (FWD)

Wed Sep 23 20:55:53 PDT 1998

When will something similar happen in the U.S. and Canada ?
British Liberals in sight of power, leader says

By Gerrard Raven

BRIGHTON, England, Sept 24 (Reuters) - British Liberals are in sight of
exercising political power on a nationwide scale for the first time since
World War Two, leader Paddy Ashdown will tell his party's annual conference on

Aides to Ashdown said he would use his keynote conference speech to send
delegates away fired with optimism and ambition. 

Ashdown would tell the conference that elections to a new Scottish parliament
to be held next May will give the Liberal Democrat Party ``the best
opportunity yet to form part of a governing programme,'' one aide said. 

He was expected to add that chances of achieving the party's long-term
ambition of replacing Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system with a
fairer proportional system of electing parliament is ``just round the
corner,'' she added. 

The first-past-the-post system allowed Labour to amass a crushing 179-seat
majority in the 659-seat House of Commons in the 1997 general election with
just 44 percent of the popular vote, while the Liberals obtained only 46 seats
with 17 percent. 

Ashdown, a former marine commando in his mid-50s, has just celebrated his 10th
anniversary at the helm of the party. 

Under his leadership, it has achieved great things in local government. It now
has more seats on councils than the opposition Conservatives, and controls
more councils. But the electoral system has limited advances on a broader

Britain's Labour Party government, however, has already legislated to hold
elections for devolved Scottish and Welsh parliaments and for Britain's
European Parliament members next year by proportional representation (PR). 

The Liberal Democrats hope to increase their haul of seats at Strasbourg to 12
from the present two as a result, and polls suggest they are likely to hold
the balance of power in the Scottish assembly with around a 10th of the 129

They might then form a coalition with either Labour or the Scottish
Nationalists. The aide said that in Thursday's speech, Ashdown would not say
which potential partner he prefers. 

Ashdown is also looking forward to publication next month of a report of a
Commission under Liberal Democrat Lord Roy Jenkins charged with identifying a
suitable PR system to elect the House of Commons. 

Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised to hold a referendum pitting this
system against first past the post. 

Senior Liberals called this week for the party to withdraw from a cabinet
committee on constitutional reform and adopt a more adversarial stance towards
the government if Blair does not back electoral change. 

Ashdown is expected to voice optimism that the referendum can be won, opening
the door to a doubling of the number of Liberal MPs, currently 46 out of 659,
and to a far higher chance that the party will hold the balance of power in
the British parliament. 

19:25 09-23-98 

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