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Tuesday, 29 September, 1998, 13:26 GMT 14:26 UK
Beckett warns Ashdown on PR
Margaret Beckett with Nick Assinder
Margaret Beckett talks to our political correspondent
Home Secretary Jack Straw is appearing on Conference Talk with Andrew Neil from 18.45 BST (17.45 GMT) on BBC2 on Monday evening.

To put your question to Mr Straw, email the programme at

The Leader of the House of Commons, Margaret Beckett, spoke to BBC News Online's Nick Assinder in Blackpool.

Mrs Beckett has delivered a blunt warning to Paddy Ashdown not to try and push Labour around over the issue of voting reform.

In an exclusive interview with BBC News Online, she used some of the strongest language yet from any minister to slap down the Liberal Democrat leader whose future hangs on delivering a referendum on electoral reform before the next election.

But, in a direct contradiction of other ministers' words, she also insisted that the government WAS committed to a national poll before the next election.

"The overwhelming impression one had from the Liberal Party conference was not merely of people who want to see a constructive dialogue and debate about whether or not we should change our electoral system and if so to what - but people who are demanding that they get what they want.

"Well I am not interested in what they want, what the British people want perhaps.

"My view has always been that it is a dangerous business to try and tell other parties what they may do.

"I don't try and tell the Liberals what they should do and I don't think they should try and tell us what we should do," she said.

But in a comment which will delight Mr Ashdown, she denied that Labour was backing away from a vote before the election.

Only two days ago cabinet "enforcer" Jack Cunningham suggested the manifesto commitment was not specific about the timing.

But Mrs Beckett declared: "What I am doing today and what other people have been doing during the week is saying -'we are not up for instructions, we did commit ourselves in the manifesto to giving the opportunity for the British people to have their say.'

"You have always got to juggle your electoral programme and your legislative timetable but it was in our manifesto and we have set ourselves to try to deliver on all our manifesto by the next election.

"When you put forward a manifesto you do look to some degree to the longer term, but most of the things that you put in a re things that you hope to be able to deliver in your first parliament," she said.

She admitted she was a "sceptic" about electoral reform because she believed all the evidence suggested that an alternative put more power into the hands of politicians rather than the people.

Mrs Beckett also insisted the election of four left-wingers to Labour's ruling executive committee would not lead to continual sniping at the leadership.

And she dismissed comments by one of the four, Tribune editor Mark Seddon, that he wanted to be the "grit in the wheels" of the government.

"Certainly one thing people have slightly overlooked is that everyone who was standing was saying that what they wanted was constructive dialogue.

"Mark is an editor with a paper to sell and if I were Mark I would be trying very hard to make myself sound interesting so everybody would buy my paper.

"Constructive dialogue is part of how the NEC has always worked," she said.

And she repeated the leadership line that ordinary party members now had more say in deciding policy than ever before.

"There is always concern when a conference like ours is changed and people wonder whether they are losing out in debates.

"I can tell you the ordinary members of the party today have infinitely more chance of being involved in discussions. We used to have lots of consultative committees but they were the great and the good who were put on the committees and then at the very last minute without much of a chance of seeing it in advance party members might get a chance to say yea or nay."

BBC News
Beckett: 'Don't push us around'
BBC News
Margaret Beckett: We'll decide what our view is, we don't need you to tell us

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