Lib-Lab talks to test electoral reform

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Labour and the Liberal Democrats are to hold talks this month aimed at striking a deal on proportional representation, it emerged last night. But the issue could lead to the breakdown of a proposed deal being struck by the two parties on constitutional reform.

Both parties would like to announce before the general election that they will work together to reform the both the House of Lords and the Commons, and to pass a Bill of Rights and a Freedom of Information Act.

However, the Liberal Democrats have issued demands on voting reform which Tony Blair is unlikely to meet. They want him to campaign for proportional representation in Westminster elections, but the Labour leader remains "not persuaded" by the arguments for it, according to party sources.

As both opposition parties denied yesterday that any agreement had yet been reached, the Prime Minister described the prospect of a deal as "dangerous".

John Major predicted that the co-operation would soon extend to changes in the voting system and to a Scottish parliament, and claimed that such moves would mean less choice for voters.

"Those will be the points of greatest interest, and I suspect that's the agenda they're really turning to," he said.

"Now I believe that is profoundly dangerous."

Proportional representation (PR) would lead to "cosy agreements between the political classes," he added, while voters in Scotland would press for independence but would soon find it was "a pig in a poke".

Both Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians emphasised yesterday that there was no deal yet. Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, said on BBC radio that Labour was committed to a referendum on PR but had yet to decide what line to take.

"What Tony Blair is going to say or recommend in that referendum is a matter that he has not commented on, and I think it would be wrong to assume that he has made his position known," he said.

Labour has committed itself to a reformed voting system for Europe and for a Scottish parliament, but sources said last night that Mr Blair was far from convinced of the case for proportional representation in British parliamentary elections.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, were insisting that Mr Blair's support for PR must be part of any deal between them. Robert Maclennan, Liberal Democrat president and joint chairman of the talks with Labour's Robin Cook, told The Independent that the talks had been constructive but were not complete. "Unless we can reach agreement on the programme as a whole then we would not envisage there being an agreement," he said.

Although the joint group set up by the opposition parties should complete its discussions by February, a number of points remain under discussion.There is no agreement yet on how new lords would be chosen once Labour's plan to remove voting rights from hereditary peers had been enacted, for example. Or how Prime Minister's questions in the Commons could be reformed.

On the Bill of Rights, the group has not agreed on whether discrimination against hitherto unprotected groups such as gays could be subject to court action in future.

Details of the Freedom of Information Act are still not decided, either. There are differences between the two parties on what sorts of information should be exempt from the act.

Donald Macintyre, page 13