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Monday, 21 September, 1998, 09:09 GMT 10:09 UK
PR debate opens Lib Dem conference
Votng for change: Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown
A debate on electoral reform is opening the first full day of the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton.

The issue of proportional representation is expected to provide a lively opening subject for delegates at the conference on Monday.

Party leader Paddy Ashdown has predicted the government will hold a national referendum on reforming the British voting system.

Speaking prior to the conference, Mr Ashdown said he believed Tony Blair would be "most likely to accept" electoral change.

"At the end of the day, if you want my judgement, I think it is more likely he will agree to the system than disagree," he told BBC Radio 5 Live on Sunday.

Lord Jenkins
Lord Jenkins's report on voting system is delivered next month
Last year, the government set up a commission on reform of the electoral system for the Commons, which is due to report next month. It is expected to recommend an alternative to the current first-past-the-post system.

Proportional representation for Westminster has long been a central demand of the Liberal Democrats.

If the prime minister refuses to back the commission's recommendation, Mr Ashdown would face calls to quit the cabinet committee on constitutional reform, on which he sits alongside ministers.

One of the most vexing questions for Liberal Democrats at this conference is the state of their relationship with the Labour party.

After a period of what Paddy Ashdown called "equidistance" from both Tories and Labour, the Liberal Democrats are now offficially in a state of "constructive opposition".

But the definitions of both "constructive" and "oppostion" are matters of fierce debate among party members.

One of the main fringe debates in Brighton on Monday is "Too Close for Comfort?"

One of the main speakers at that meeting Simon Hughes MP told BBC Radio 4's Today programme his party's biggest test was yet to come.

He said the most difficult period would come following the publication of the Jenkins report as his party would support a proposal for PR.

Mr Ashdown said this year's Liberal Democrat conference will be pivotal to the party's future.

He said the policies agreed there would set the direction for the party into the new millennium.

"British politics has now caught up with the Liberal Democrats.

"We have proved over the last 20 years we are the pathfinders of British politics. The things that we proposed are now being applied," he said.

Backbench fears

A poll for BBC's On The Record programme suggested Labour MPs are split evenly on the issue of electoral reform although many fear they could lose their seats

Of 150 questioned, 62 backed the current system, while 58 preferred the Alternative Vote Plus system of PR, which is expected to be proposed by the Jenkins Commission.

Thirty of the MPs said they did not know which system they preferred. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook is said to be among three Cabinet ministers who back reform.

Under the Alternative Vote system, 500 MPs would be elected, with candidates listed in order of preference so that second and third choices have an influence.

Another 100 or so MPs would be elected using a "top-up" system which allocates extra members to parties under-represented.

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See also:

21 Sep 98 | UK Politics
21 Sep 98 | UK Politics
20 Sep 98 | UK Politics
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