Ashdown backs vote reform campaign

By Andrew Grice, Political Editor
Published May 28th 2005 in The Independent
Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, has backed The Independent's campaign for the introduction of fair votes for elections to the House of Commons.

As an international civil servant, Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon has kept out of British politics since becoming High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2002. But he has re-entered the debate to join the calls for proportional representation after Labour won a majority of 67 on the support of 22 per cent of the electorate.

He said: "My long-standing, enthusiastic and committed support for electoral reform has only been strengthened by the result of the general election. I fully support the campaign to at last bring fair votes to the people of Britain."

He was speaking at the end of a week in which Mr Blair formally abolished the body which symbolised the close co-operation he forged with Labour, the joint consultative committee (JCC) of cabinet ministers and senior Liberal Democrats which was set up after Labour won power in 1997.

Although he led a rival party, Lord Ashdown probably has a unique insight into Tony Blair's views on PR, which proved the stumbling block during their intense negotiations on forming a Lab-Lib coalition with some Liberal Democrats joining the Cabinet.

Lord Ashdown made a Labour commitment to a referendum on PR a condition of such a deal. Although talks continued after Labour won a landslide in 1997, the majority strengthened the hand of senior ministers who urged Mr Blair not to concede -- notably John Prescott, and Jack Straw, who was then Home Secretary.

Mr Blair discussed the option of him declaring before a referendum that he had become convinced change to the voting system was necessary - which Lord Ashdown agreed would be enough to secure a deal.

In 1996, Mr Blair told Lord Ashdown: "I can personally deliver to you what I think you want but I must get Gordon [Brown] on board." He said Mr Brown was "still in favour of first- past-the-post". Asked if he feels he was betrayed by Mr Blair, Lord Ashdown replied: "No." He believes the Prime Minister was as "serious and sincere" as he was about their joint project to realign Britain's two centre-left parties.

Lord Ashdown believes "tribal forces" in the Labour Party proved too strong. But he does not blame Mr Blair, which surprises some colleagues, who suspect the Prime Minister was raising false hopes all along.

A week after the 1997 election, when discussing a commission on electoral reform, Mr Blair told Lord Ashdown: "I won't let Jack [Straw] scupper this." But he now believes he allowed him to do just that.

When the commission, chaired by Lord Jenkins, reported in 1998, Mr Straw rubbished its pro-PR recommendations in the Commons. At that moment, Lord Ashdown knew the project was irrecoverable. A few days later, he decided to resign as Liberal Democrat leader.