Blair reform plan 'will rip UK apart'

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Political Correspondent

Tony Blair's wide-ranging lecture on political reform last night provoked dire Conservative warnings that Labour would "rip apart the United Kingdom", but drew a cautious welcome from the Liberal Democrats, underlining the prospect of Lib-Lab co-operation after the next election.

Speaking to an audience of more than 500 for the John Smith Memorial Lecture in Westminster, Mr Blair set out Labour's plans for reform of the House of Lords, a referendum on changing the voting system for the Commons, devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and London, annual local elections, directly elected mayors for big cities, and a "code of citizens' rights".

Mr Blair ruled out an all- encompassing "Great Reform Bill", but declared: "New Labour wants to give power to the people, to be a government working in partnership with the people ... This is the future we want to build in the name of John Smith."

The Labour leader's plan to take away the rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords drew Brian Mawhinney, the Conservative party chairman, into a controversial defence of the hereditary principle. He said Labour "would deprive parliament of a range of experience that has brought to debates wisdom and knowledge which would otherwise be missing".

In a pre-emptive speech in London, Mr Mawhinney also claimed that the move "could conceivably" pose a threat to the monarchy. "It is quite simply the politics of class-driven envy," he said.

A spokesman for Mr Blair welcomed Mr Mawhinney's speech as a "huge mistake, playing right into our hands". It helped underline Mr Blair's message that Labour was the party of the people, against the party of privilege, he said.

Robert Maclennan, Liberal Democrat spokesman on the constitution, welcomed Mr Blair's strong acknowledgement of the case for reform of the voting system for elections to the Commons - although the Labour leader again said "I have never been persuaded" proportional representation was a good idea.

Mr Blair said: "Some feel strongly about the case for reform, and point to the Tory governments elected on a minority of the vote and the fact that smaller parties get squeezed under the current system."

Mr Maclennan responded: "I take encouragement from the evidence of some movement in Mr Blair's thinking on electoral reform. Fair votes are not essentially about party interests, they are about voters' rights. I am glad that he has recognised the unfairness of the existing system."

Mr Maclennan is engaged in official talks with Robin Cook, Labour's policy supremo and a supporter of electoral reform, on the nature and timing of the referendum on changing the electoral system.Mr Blair in his lecture repeated his willingness to "work with all those of goodwill who believe in the need for political change".

Andrew Marr, page 19