Proposed cuts and new voting rules prime Labour for bitter internal battle

THE Labour Party last night was bracing itself for a bitter internal battle over proportional representation following the Kerley Committee's recommendation that local authority elections be run on the basis of the transferable vote in multi-member wards.

Although a sop of enhanced payments for councillors and council leaders is offered, this would be paid for by reductions in the size of councils, with up to 300 of the current 1200 serving councillors facing redundancy.

The proposal would erode many of the great Labour fiefdoms in Scotland, particularly Glasgow, where the Labour Party currently holds 74 of the 79 seats.

Council leader, Councillor Charles Gordon, could scarcely contain his fury, challenging the party to apply PR to Westminster elections if it were to be foisted on to local elections.

He said: ''The Labour Party is preparing itself for a very enervating and lengthy debate that will culminate at next March's Scottish party conference. There's no doubt that some new-Labour types join in with the bearded academics and the scribblers for Sunday newspapers read by three men and the dog.

''I would say to those people in my own party who think that Labour's Air Force should be converted into kamikaze squadrons - I think they should fly the first missions. If they think it is unfair that Labour has so many seats at every level of representation in this country, they should set a good moral example and give up their own first.''

He felt there were very serious issues for the administration of Glasgow in the proposals. In reducing Glasgow to 53 members, it is not at all clear how city councillors would be able to exercise their quasi-judicial roles which were not subject to party whipping, such as staffing the district court with justices of the peace, and dealing with thousands of planning applications and liquor licensing applications.

''That is over 40% of the work of this council which is not even considered by Kerley. He has come out with a 'one size fits all' solution which does an injustice to city government in Glasgow,'' said Councillor Gordon.

Meanwhile, First Minister Donald Dewar has agreed to chair the Cabinet sub-committee on the Kerley Report on local government reform, which will begin work in August.

It is a large Cabinet sub-commitee comprising all but the Health, Environment, and Education Ministers, and its size will fuel speculation that Labour is stacking up the numbers against the Lib-Dems with a view to playing a long and drawn-out game over surrendering the principle of proportional representation for local government elections.

However, Liberal Democrat sources said last night that they were ''relaxed about the make-up of the committee'' as they believed the majority of Labour members on it were on-side about the arguments in favour of PR for local government.

The only official comment from the Executive yesterday came from deputy Local Government Minister Frank McAveety, who said in a written parliamentary answer that the Kerley Committee findings would be ''taken forward'' initially by the ad hoc ministerial working group chaired by Mr Dewar, which would report to the full Cabinet.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats, key players in the push for PR for council elections, seemed prepared yesterday to give their Labour coalition partners time to try to win over the council chiefs and some MSPs in their party who bitterly oppose such a move.

Welcoming the Kerley Report, they refused, however, to give Labour ultimatums or lay down any fixed timetable for the introduction of proportional representation.

Mr Mike Rumbles MSP, who chairs the Parliament's Standards Committee, said they wanted to see some definite action on the Kerley proposals by the end of this Parliament and local government spokesman Donald Gorrie MSP insisted he had every confidence the Executive would continue its ''positive and constructive approach'' to council reform.

The Scottish Tories, however, claimed the issue of PR, like that of student fees, would stretch the coalition to breaking point.

Tory leader David McLetchie MSP said: ''The timing of the next local elections must now be in doubt as it is highly unlikely any changes to electoral systems and boundaries can be put in place in time for elections in 2002.''

The Tories are by no means united in their approach to PR, although their official position is still to oppose a system which would bring them increased representation.

Local government spokesman Keith Harding MSP said they favoured first-past-the-post but the additional member system of PR used for the Parliament elections better fitted the Committee's remit than single transferable vote.

The SNP favours PR for local polls and yesterday warned Labour there must be no ''foot dragging'' over its implementation.

Mr Kerley, a former Edinburgh councillor and currently director of the management school at Edinburgh University, headed a 10-strong committee appointed by the Scottish Executive, to examine the future of local government.

The committee also included Sir Neil McIntosh, who chaired the McIntosh Commission, which examined the interface between local government and the Scottish Parliament.

n Councillors should be elected by single transferable vote in multi-member wards.

n Councillors should be paid a minimum of #12,000 per year.

n Councils leaders' remuneration should be linked to the salaries of MSPs which would mean leaders in Glasgow and Edinburgh receiving just over #41,000.

n The numbers of councillors in Glasgow should be reduced from 79 to just over 50 and in North and South Lanarkshire, currently 70 and 67 respectively, being reduced by 20 each.