Election ;97: The challenges facing Britain's new Labour government

Cross-party alliance a threat to devolution
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The Independent Online
Only a handful of Tony Blair's Cabinet were in the Labour Government which lost power in 1979, but the devolution battle which proved its final downfall will be scorched deep into the minds of the new Government of 1997.

With some MPs on both sides of the house opposed to Labour's plans for Scottish and Welsh assemblies, Britain's new Prime Minister will be very much aware that the issue will be one of the most difficult with which he will have to deal.

The last time Labour proposed devolution north of the border, the bill ate up nearly one-third of a legislative year, ending in a vote of no confidence. This is why, in the face of strong opposition in Scotland, Mr Blair decided last year that he would hold a referendum on the issue.

Although Labour and the Liberal Democrats have agreed to co-operate in introducing legislation as soon as possible, they will face opposition from a small handful of their own MPs - including Tam Dalyell, the Labour member for Linlithgow and the inventor of the notorious "West Lothian question". (Mr Dalyell repeatedly asked during the Seventies why Scottish assembly members from West Lothian should be able to vote on English affairs in Westminster when Westminster MPs could not vote on West Lothian affairs in Scotland.) Others, including one of Labour's campaign managers, Brian Wilson, have anti-devolution pasts.

There are also signs that some Welsh Labour MPs, including Denzil Davies, former Treasury minister and MP for Llanelli in Dyfed, and Ray Powell, member for Ogmore in Mid Glamorgan, have doubts about some aspects of the policy, particularly the plans for the assemblies to be elected through proportional representation (PR).

Mr Blair has already run into trouble twice over his plans for Scottish devolution - once last year, over the assembly's tax-raising powers, and more recently during the general election campaign. The Labour leader was heavily criticised after he said in a newspaper interview that a Scottish assembly would be similar in some respects to an English parish council. He has maintained that sovereignty rests with Westminster, to the fury of many Scots who believe that it rests with the voters.

Mr Blair is well aware that he needs a big hitter in charge of his plans, and it is assumed that he will put his chief whip, Donald Dewar, in charge. However, alternative rumours put Mr Dewar either at the Scottish Office or the job of Leader of the House, where he could oversee all Labour's constitutional reforms.

The other constitutional issue that will exercise Mr Blair's strategists over the next few weeks is the promise of a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. However, with such a large majority he does not have to keep the Liberal Democrat Party happy - this is the big issue on which they would have demanded concessions in a hung Parliament, and Mr Blair has already said he is "not persuaded" of the case for proportional representation.

His first act on this issue will be to set up a commission which will recommend a proportional alternative to the present first-past-the-post system. However, the timetable would be tight even if Mr Blair was fully committed to introducing the change before the next election.

Labour's manifesto contained a large section on "cleaning up politics", and there are a number of other measures to which the Government is committed.

A Freedom of Information Act and a Bill of Rights are promised, probably in the first Queen's Speech this month. These will incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into law in the United Kingdom as "a floor, not a ceiling". The Freedom of Information Act will be accompanied by "more open government", and an independent national statistical service.

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