Angry Ashdown accuses Straw over PR referendum hold-up

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PADDY ASHDOWN, who has been in close contact with Tony Blair over the presentation of the Jenkins report on electoral reform, is livid with Jack Straw.

He believes the Home Secretary, an opponent of electoral reform, has been acting irresponsibly by criticising the report so vociferously.

The Liberal Democrat leader is angry at comments made by the Home Secretary on the BBC Newsnight last Thursday about the complexity of Jenkins' proposed voting system. After receiving "a positive response" from the Prime Minister, Mr Ashdown feels Mr Straw is deliberately "muddying the water" to stoke up opposition to the Jenkins report. The report is a key part of the Government's wider strategy for constitutional change.

Last week the Prime Minister warmly welcomed the report. He told Cabinet colleagues to avoid splits by uniting behind a call for a public debate on it.

The positive tone of the Prime Minister's response protected Paddy Ashdown from any threat to his leadership. But he believes that concerted efforts to put off the referendum until the next parliament could cause delays in implementing a proportional voting system - possibly for 11 years - because of the need for a review of constituency boundaries. "There is a feeling that Mr Straw has gone far too far in a personal capacity towards this scheme," said a Liberal Democrat source.

Other opponents of proportional representation, including Margaret Beckett, the Leader of the House, have been less vocal in their criticism since the Jenkins report was published last week.

Private meetings between Mr Blair and Mr Ashdown over the last few days about PR are said to have been positive. Lib-Dems and pro-reformers in the Labour party have privately conceded they may have to settle for a referendum on the voting system after the next election.

"We are broadly satisfied about the ways things are going," said Mr Ashdown. "The right time to hold an election is before the elections. Our job is to ensure that our options remain open. The presumption must be in favour of a referendum this parliament."

The anti-PR lobby, led by the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU), is gearing up for a national debate on proportional representation. It wants the referendum to be put off indefinitely. It has the backing of more than 100 Labour MPs, including ministers.

"It's a broad-based coalition of business, MPs and unions against PR," said a spokesman for the AEEU. "What the group intends to do is be prepared for a referendum at any time. We welcome the Prime Minister's announcement about a national debate. We want to prepare ourselves for that and participate in it."

The Jenkins report proposed the "AV Top-up" system, giving voters the chance to make more than one choice on a ballot paper and to vote for another MP representing a larger area. It does not remove the link with constituencies.