Labour signals interest in electoral reform

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, yesterday signalled a dramatic shift towards a limited change in the voting system, when his closest adviser Peter Mandelson endorsed a more proportional system for electing MPs.

Mr Mandelson told the BBC's On The Record: "My mind has moved on this. I am much more open to the debate on electoral reform than I was in the past."

He advocated allowing voters to number candidates in order of preference rather than marking a single X, which is similar to the final recommendation of the Labour commission chaired by Lord Plant, rejected by former leader John Smith.

"If we were going to move towards a different and fairer electoral system, we should consider a system in which people are able to express a first, second and third preference in their constituencies," Mr Mandelson said.

Mr Blair may have indicated a shift in his position in his John Smith Memorial Lecture earlier this month, when he did not rule out changing the voting system - he said he was "not persuaded" of the case for proportional representation, rather than of the case for any kind of change. Preferential voting would not strictly relate a party's number of seats to its proportion of the vote, and Mr Mandelson said he remained opposed to rigidly proportional systems. He told the BBC: "I'm not in favour of proportional representation [because] it will produce a plethora of minority parties."

Preferential voting would produce a "fairer" outcome, in that the number of seats a party won would be more closely related to votes. Analysts expect it would give the Liberal Democrats more seats at the expense of both the bigger parties. But it would allow existing single-member constituencies to be retained.

Mr Mandelson expressed hostility to both other main options for change. The first is a list system, supported by Robin Cook, the main advocate of reform in the Shadow Cabinet, and adopted by Labour and the Liberal Democrats for a Scottish parliament. The second is the Single Transferable Vote in large, multi-member constituencies, which has historically been preferred by the Liberals.

Mr Mandelson, whose book Blair's Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver? with ex-SDP candidate Roger Liddle is published tomorrow, also refused to rule out the appointment of Liberal Democrat ministers in a Labour government.

A spokesman for the Labour leader said: "Peter Mandelson's views should not be seen as any ramp for Mr Blair."

Robert Maclennan, for the Liberal Democrats, said that if Mr Mandelson's view was Mr Blair's, "and I assume it is", then "we are beginning to get somewhere". But preferential voting was "not a system we favour".