Lib Dems snubbed over referendum strategy

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The Independent Online
Labour will reject a Liberal Democrat call for three referendums - on Scots and Welsh devolution, and electoral reform - to be staged on a special Democracy Day soon after a Labour government took office.

Senior Liberal Democrats have come up with the Democracy Day plan to overcome expected public resistance to a series of referendum votes being planned by Labour: on devolution, electoral reform and, possibly, the single European currency. They believe that by consolidating the devolution and electoral reform votes into one "big bang" event, they might be able to inspire a higher turn-out by selling it as a unique chance to decide on the way democracy works.

No formal proposal has yet been put by the Liberal Democrats to the Labour leadership, but one well placed Labour source said last night that it was not a runner.

If elected, Labour is planning to stage the devolution referendums, in Scotland and Wales, within a few months of taking office. The source said there was no question of Labour being ready to stage an early referendum on electoral reform, which would be too controversial to get through the party and Parliament at high speed.

Even Labour sources sympathetic to electoral reform said yesterday that the party leader, Tony Blair, might need to set up an electoral commission to decide the reform options that should be put to the electorate.

Nevertheless, Labour supporters of electoral reform argue that once a Scottish parliament has been created, the House of Lords reformed, and British elections to the European parliament have been switched to proportional representation, the Commons will be one of the few institutions left working on the first-past-the-post system.

Saturday's Referendum Party conference, an event with a strong English nationalist flavour, was notable for the ignorance of grass roots members about the aims of the party.

Sir James Goldsmith - creator, leader, financial backer, and candidate - told the conference at Brighton that the British people held four principal views about Europe.

"They are: that we should become an integral part of a federal Europe," he said, "or be part of a family of sovereign European nations which would cooperate when we can do things better together than separately; or that we should return to being a member of the European Free Trade Association; or, that we should just get out."

He said the party wanted a referendum which would accommodate such options.

But a majority of the 50 party members questioned by The Independent appeared not to be aware of these options. They said they either wanted to get out of the European Union at once - or expected that to be the outcome.

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