Voting For A New Britain: Horsetrading starts for Lib-Lab deal

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The Independent Online
HORSETRADING OVER the terms of a Lib-Lab coalition in the new Scottish Parliament appeared to have begun last night, with key policy areas on the negotiating table.

With the latest polls suggesting that Labour could fall well short of the 65 seats needed for a majority, the Private Finance Initiative and tuition fees looked likely to be among the main areas for discussion. Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary and likely First Minister of the Parliament, hinted that he now favoured a formal coalition over minority government.

Last weekend there were strong indications that Mr Dewar would go it alone if Labour could gain more than 60 of the Parliament's 129 seats. But in an interview with The Scotsman yesterday he called for maximum stability and suggested he would not be in favour of behind-the-scenes deals.

"I think at the end of the day, stability is a great prize. If you are in a situation when you have to talk to other parties, it's important that that is done in an open and honest way and that you work together. But we have not got to that stage and we may not reach that," said Mr Dewar.

An NOP poll in yesterday's Scottish Daily Express suggested Labour would win 56 seats with 46 per cent of the vote on the first ballot tomorrow, and the Scottish National Party 43 seats with 31 per cent. That would leave the Conservatives with 17 seats and the Liberal Democrats with 11 - just enough to form a majority with Labour.

Mr Dewar also refused to confirm that Labour would use public-private partnerships to build new hospitals and schools if it came to power - schemes that have been opposed by other parties.

"What we will continue to do is to look at the merits of any particular project that comes up. We will use the flexible and pragmatic approach that we have done. Some of our projects are directly funded, some are not. Those who say we should not use PFI... are duty bound to produce an alternative or to admit that they'll just have to go without the developments," he said.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Jim Wallace, confirmed that his party would insist that tuition fee charges be dropped. "Tuition fees are dead as of next Friday," Mr Wallace said, explaining that with the Tories and the SNP also opposed to fees, there would be a majority in the Parliament for abolition. "The people of Scotland have made it non-negotiable."

The move would cost about pounds 38m per year, which could mean the loss of roughly 8,400 full-time student places each year or 1,650 teachers' jobs.

Mr Wallace made his most explicit demand so far in the campaign that he wants Scottish cabinet jobs in exchange for Liberal Democrat support.

"We are not going to put ourselves in a position where we support the Government's programme from the opposition benches, and get all the blame when things go wrong and none of the credit when things go right," he said.

Coalition meant a properly integrated government where members took collective responsibility, Mr Wallace insisted.

David McLetchie, leader of the the Scottish Conservatives, condemned suggestions that a formal deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats was likely. "Donald Dewar would be well advised to sup with a very long spoon with the Liberal Democrats," Mr McLetchie said. "They are a fickle party. One minute they are cuddling up to him, the next they are cuddling up to the SNP."

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