Blair moves closer to electoral reform

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The Independent Online
JOHN RENTOUL

Political Correspondent

The odds have tilted sharply in favour of a change to Britain's voting system under a government led by Tony Blair, the Independent has learnt

A senior Labour source has disclosed that the Labour leader is moving towards support for reform.

Mr Blair and Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, have begun to discuss how to fulfil Labour's promise to hold a referendum on changing the way the House of Commons is elected. The source said that, by the time of a referendum, "it could be that Tony and Jack will support the Alternative Vote" - allowing voters to mark candidates in order of preference, instead of using an X, which would give the Liberal Democrats more seats. "Much of the party could unite behind that," said the source.

The Labour leadership's early thinking is that the referendum should be held in the middle to late part of a first Parliament. It would be presented as the centrepiece of a "new politics", in which the people themselves decide how they are governed.

It is expected that the referendum would offer four options: keep the present first-past-the-post system; allow voters to mark candidates 1,2,3 and so on, or another variant of the Alternative Vote; the German system, which elects some MPs from regional lists so that parties overall get the same proportion of seats as votes; and the Irish system, which elects about five MPs in each "super" constituency.

Until recently, Mr Blair and Mr Straw have opposed change. Their limited but dramatic shift follows the backing for the Alternative Vote by Mr Blair's closest adviser, Peter Mandelson, last month.

The Liberal Democrats and many Labour supporters of reform regard the Alternative Vote as little better than the present system, because it is not strictly proportional. But it could still make a dramatic difference. Research at the last election suggested that it would have deprived John Major of his majority, giving the Liberal Democrats 10 more seats, Labour one fewer and the Tories 11 fewer. The Scottish National Party would have gained three, and Plaid Cymru lost one.

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