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banner Tuesday, 20 November, 2001, 23:56 GMT
McConnell gains Lib Dem support
Jim Wallace and Jack McConnell
Jim Wallace and Jack McConnell emerge from the talks
Jack McConnell has secured the backing of Liberal Democrat MSPs with a promise of action on voting reform for local councils.

In Edinburgh Mr McConnell held talks with the Lib Dems on Tuesday in a bid to secure their support for his bid to become Scotland's next first minister.

The new Scottish Labour leader attempted to reassure Jim Wallace's party that he is committed to the partnership agreement on which their coalition is based.

After the meeting Mr McConnell said it was his job "to make sure that progress is made and seen to be made," on voting reform.

Jim Wallace
Jim Wallace: PR is "important issue for Lib Dems"

Lib Dem MSPs had been concerned that Labour was dragging its feet over the issue.

However, Jim Wallace, on Tuesday evening, said Mr McConnell had gone further than before in offering reassurance.

Mr Wallace said: "Jack indicated that we needed to make demonstrable progress.

"He said, and our group accepted, that it was important to identify what the next steps should be, and do that as a priority with a timetable, and to come back to our respective groups before Christmas."

'Partnership agreement'

The Scottish National Party said on Monday night that it had written to Jim Wallace asking him to "insist on a firm commitment to proportional representation (PR) for local government".

Mr McConnell is almost certain to be elected first minister in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday but he required backing from the Lib Dems to ensure a victory.

Both parties drew up a partnership agreement in 1999 following the Holyrood elections which committed them to coalition government.

Although Labour is the senior partner with the most MSPs it has had to make some concessions in policy in exchange for Lib Dem support.

I am clear that the next steps should be taken with greater urgency and I will make it a priority to deliver a timetable for those next steps

Jack McConnell

The most notable concession to date is the abolition of tuition fees for students - a key a pledge in the Lib Dems' manifesto.

Another - which has yet to be fulfilled - concerns the introduction of PR in local council elections.

The written coalition "partnership agreement" between the two parties refers only to the goal of "progress" to fair voting.

The Lib Dems hope the next council elections, which will coincide with the next Holyrood elections in 2003, will be the last held under first-past-the-post.

During Mr McConnell's acceptance speech as new Scottish Labour leader, he said that although the issue of voting reform was important it was not an overriding priority.

Ballot box
PR was high on the agenda

On Tuesday night Mr McConnell attempted to reassure the Lib Dems on this issue.

"I am clear that the next steps should be taken with greater urgency and I will make it a priority to deliver a timetable for those next steps," he said.

"Both Donald Dewar and Henry McLeish gave a commitment to make progress on electoral reform and as long as I am leader of the party we will honour that pledge."

Mr Wallace said: "Implementing PR for local government is a very important issue for Liberal Democrats.

"We recognise that there are different opinions about it within the Labour Party. What we wanted to know was how Jack intended to make progress on this issue."

Before the meeting SNP leader John Swinney sought to increase the pressure on Mr Wallace by saying that he needs to "show some backbone and insist on a firm commitment to PR for local government".

Brian Taylor reports
"Mr McConnell has promised urgent action"
Glen Campbell reports
"Mr McConnell is expected to offer the Lib Dems some reassurance on the issue"
See also:

19 Nov 01 | McLeish resignation
Four vie for first minister's job
18 Nov 01 | McLeish resignation
Labour urged to back new Scots leader
17 Nov 01 | McLeish resignation
McConnell sets priorities for office
17 Nov 01 | McLeish resignation
McConnell's clear run to the top job
17 Nov 01 | McLeish resignation
Opposition scorn for Scots Labour leader
Links to more McLeish resignation stories are at the foot of the page.

Links to more McLeish resignation stories