Ashdown seeks Scots vote reform

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Voting reform for local elections should be one of the first acts of the new Scottish Parliament, the Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown said yesterday.

On a visit to Scotland to campaign for a "yes, yes" vote in the devolution referendum on 11 September, Mr Ashdown said proportional representation could help to prevent the in-fighting which had characterised local politics in areas such as Paisley.

Mr Ashdown was making a speech in the former Royal High School in Edinburgh, the building earmarked for the new Parliament until ministers decided that it would not be suitable and launched a competition for architects to build a new one.

Mr Ashdown pointed out that the new Parliament would have the power to change local voting systems, and argued that it should use it.

"The cronyism, the factional in-fighting, the bad mouthing, the destruction of public trust and private lives - all are products of a voting system that keeps unrepresentative cliques in unchallenged and unfettered power for years on end.

"We are not talking about the failings of one party or another. We are talking about the kind of politics that develops when one party has an unhealthy and unrepresentative monopoly of power," he said.

A reformed Scottish political system would lead the way towards the modernisation of politics across the United Kingdom, he added. Liberal Democrat sources argued last night that PR for local authorities in Scotland would be in the interests of all the parties. The Conservatives and Scottish National Party would gain seats from it as well as themselves, while many new Labour members could see it as a way of ridding their party of factionalism.

Mr Ashdown also attacked the Conservatives' constitutional affairs spokesman, Michael Ancram, accusing him of "insult, misinformation and lies". Mr Ancram had claimed on Wednesday that a Scottish parliament would create a "cesspool of resentment" which would lead to the break-up of the UK.

The Defence Secretary, George Robertson, also chose to attack Mr Ancram, a former Northern Ireland minister, for "hypocrisy" while campaigning in Dundee.

"How can Michael Ancram parade as the hammer of Scottish devolution in August 1997 when he was the salesman of Northern Ireland devolution in April of 1997?

"How can he be taken seriously for a moment by mature and thinking voters when he tells them that an English legislature would open the door to instant separation when he was telling Northern Ireland voters four months ago that a Belfast legislature would strengthen the Union?" he asked.

Elsewhere in the campaign the focus switched back to the economic issues, with the Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar set to meet sceptical leaders of the Scottish CBI in Edinburgh in an attempt to convince them that devolution would be good for business.

Letters, page 13

Leading article, page 13