UK polls: Protests as parties seek coalition deal

Protestors rallied in London Saturday demanding voting reform.

London: Protestors rallied in London Saturday demanding voting reform as British opposition parties haggled over a power-sharing deal to resolve the political deadlock following knife-edge elections.
Some 1,000 protesters staged a noisy rally outside the London venue where Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was meeting his lawmakers to consider an offer to join a coalition with the Conservatives.

"It`s in the interests of everybody in Britain for us to use this opportunity to usher in a new politics after the discredited politics of the past," said Clegg, addressing the purple-clad activists with a megaphone.

They were demanding changes to Britain`s first-past-the-post voting system to introduce proportional representation, which would help smaller parties like the Lib Dems, perennial third-place finisher in British elections.

The demo was also a reminder to Clegg not to abandon the party`s commitment to electoral reform in any deal with David Cameron`s Conservatives, who strongly oppose proportional representation.

The Conservatives won the most seats in the vote but failed to secure the overall majority to allow them to govern alone, leaving Britain with its first hung parliament for 36 years.

With Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labour party still in his Downing Street residence, Conservative and Lib Dem negotiators held a first meeting on Friday and are expected to meet again Sunday morning.

The Conservatives want to finalise a power-sharing deal before the financial markets open on Monday, but Clegg will be wary of a hasty agreement that he cannot sell to party members who must give their approval.

The parties are not natural partners, with the Lib Dems closer to Labour in many areas.

"We will very much be making the case for the big four priorities that we`ve always said .. would always guide us," Clegg said, adding that the Lib Dems were negotiating in a "constructive spirit".

"Firstly fair tax reform, secondly a new approach in education to provide the fair start that all children deserve in school, thirdly a new approach to the economy so we can build a new economy from the rubble of the old, and fourthly fundamental political reform to our political system."

Electoral reform is likely to be the biggest sticking point.

In making his offer Friday, Cameron insisted there was common ground but his suggestion of setting up an all-party inquiry into the issue is likely to fall short of Lib Dem demands.

Lib Dem negotiator David Laws said the possibility of an agreement on holding a referendum on proportional representation was one of the matters being discussed, adding: "We are keen for an early conclusion of these issues."

He said the party`s lawmakers had given a "very clear endorsement" of what Clegg was trying to do, but refused to say if a deal would be done by Monday. A Conservative source also confirmed a deal was unlikely before then.

The Conservatives` defence spokesman Liam Fox warned the talks could not be "held to ransom" by the Lib Dems` proportional representation demands. He stressed that the Tories had made it clear in the campaign that "we were very much against it".

"What leaders will have to focus on is the fact that the Conservatives are the biggest party and it`s reasonable that a programme would be followed that put the larger part of our manifesto into place," he said.

If a deal cannot be done, Cameron made clear he was also prepared to try to rule as a minority Conservative government relying on support from smaller parties. The Conservatives have 306 lawmakers in the 650-seat House of Commons, compared to 258 for Labour. The Liberal Democrats were thrust into the kingmaker role despite a disappointing return of 57 seats.

Brown is waiting in the wings to talk to the Lib Dems if they and the Conservatives cannot force through a deal, and has tried to entice them with the prospect of "immediate legislation" on electoral reform.

The BBC reported that Brown had clashed with Clegg in a bad-tempered telephone conversation Friday, a claim denied by a Lib Dem source. Some commentators said a fresh election might be the only route to a stable government.

The pound slumped to a 13-month low against the dollar on fears the deadlock would hamper Britain`s ability to tackle its sky-high public debt.

Bureau Report

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