Kennedy tells Blair to honour his PR promise

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Indy Politics

Charles Kennedy launched his party's annual conference yesterday in Brighton with a demand that Tony Blair honour his pledge to review the voting system.

The Liberal Democrat leader is to write to Mr Blair next week warning him not to abandon his election manifesto promise to look again at introducing proportional representation in Britain. Mr Kennedy said it was a matter of "trust" for Mr Blair to keep his vow on PR , and said failure to launch a review would be a sign of bad faith on the Prime Minister's behalf.

"If the issue at the moment for the Government is trust then something like this is key," he said. "This was a manifesto commitment and it is time for the Prime Minister to honour it."

Mr Kennedy's warning to Mr Blair marks a toughening of the Liberal Democrat position towards Labour and a signal that the party plans to maintain pressure on him until the next election on issues including top-up fees.

The defeat of Labour in Brent has hardened the Liberal Democrats' resolve to distance themselves from Labour. Mr Kennedy indicated that the joint cabinet committee set up as a co-operative forum between the two parties is all but dead unless proportional representation (PR) is put back on the agenda. Yesterday he said that co-operation in that committee, which was set up by Paddy Ashdown and Mr Blair and is currently suspended, had "withered on the vine".

"I think the box marked JCC is going to remain firmly with its lid closed for the rest of this parliament," he said. "If the phone went this afternoon and he [Mr Blair] put proportional representation on the table, then I would very happily agree to a meeting of the JCC to discuss that."

The Liberal Democrat leader was in buoyant mood after Thursday's victory in Brent East as he prepared to address delegates directly in a question and answer session today.

Sarah Teather, the victorious candidate at the north London by-election, was greeted with cheers by activists.

In its 2001 election manifesto, Labour said it would review the voting systems after the Welsh and Scottish elections, held earlier this year. Mr Kennedy said he wanted the Liberal Democrats to have an input into the review and Labour would be showing bad faith not to stage it.

"We will be looking to them to review the voting system and when we find out exactly what shape or form - what I would assume would be a government review of it - then we will certainly want input into it," he said. "It is a very important item of faith indeed."

The Liberal Democrats would be sure to gain a greater number of seats if the first-past-the-post" voting system was abolished. But ministers have indicated the introduction of proportional representation is off the agenda.

Mr Kennedy said: "Had we had PR during the Iraq debate, a differently constituted House of Commons may have voted differently. It's time to get a fairer system that would reflect more accurately the views of the British people than the lottery which is first past the post."

The option of introducing proportional representation has been strongly resisted by the unions and most Labour MPs, who believe it will lead to coalition government.

The issue has been kicked into the long grass by ministers since the 2001 general election and a new cabinet committee looking at electoral issues will not even consider it.

But the Liberal Democrats have long insisted introducing PR would be the price for propping up any Labour government. Yesterday, senior Liberal Democrats made clear they would not look favourably at supporting an ailing Blair government that did not honour its pledge. One senior source said: "We are not going to automatically be there if they decide they need us."

In Scotland, where Labour and the Liberal Democrats are in government together, PR is to be introduced for local elections. A form of PR is already used for European Parliament elections, which has helped the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party to gain many seats.