Responding to the Plant working party's narrow recommendation for electing MPs by the 'supplementary vote,' the Labour leader made clear his belief that the existing first-past-the-post system could not be bettered, and his dislike of proportional representation.
That prompted Sir Norman Fowler, Conservative Party chairman, to call him the 'ultimate fence-sitter', wanting to call a referendum and then campaign for no change. Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: 'The electorate will expect clarity when the time comes for decisions to be taken.'
However, the referendum proposal - which if accepted by the autumn conference would become a manifesto commitment - was still warmly welcomed by many pro- and anti-change MPs. Any disappointment among enthusiasts for proportional representation was kept carefully in check.
Mr Smith's vehicle for giving one member, one vote (Omov) wider practical effect while retaining union links is to allow political levy-paying trade unionists full party membership on a reduced subscription.
He has, in effect, adopted the 'levy plus' idea favoured by John Prescott, the party's transport spokesman. Mr Smith could have done that several months ago, and so may attract suggestions that he has shifted ground. But the tactic is likely to make it more difficult for union leaders to justify opposition. Unions began to line up behind Mr Smith yesterday, although the party's biggest affiliates still harboured considerable doubts, indicating a close vote at the conference where the unions will command 70 per cent of the vote.
The biggest, the transport and general, is likely to oppose it. The GMB general union and Nupe have suggested a system of registered supporters. The unstated problem is that some union 'barons' are keen to remain the conduits of such rank and file support.
Mr Smith added that the pounds 18 yearly membership subscription for other party members was too high, and all members should be able to vote in the selection of parliamentary candidates without having to wait the present
However, the AEEU, a proponent of the purist version of Omov, said it was highly unlikely that most unions could either identify levy-payers by constituency or persuade them to 'cough up' in time for the selections in early 1994.
Yesterday's events - including the ruling National Executive Committee's endorsement of the need for a Bill of Rights - mark changes from traditional Labour attitudes to constitutional and democratic change.
Mr Smith gave his blessing to the Plant committee's recommendations for proportional representation for a reformed second chamber and the European Parliament. All the recommendations will be the subject of wider party consultation.
Jeff Rooker, MP for Birmingham Perry Barr and chairman of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, supported by 60 MPs, insisted Mr Smith's stance was positive. The pro-change Robin Cook, trade and industry spokesman, was sure PR supporters would eventually carry the day.
Mr Smith's referendum proposal - based on the principle that electors, not the elected, should decide - will not necessarily unite the party.
The Labour First Past The Post Campaign, supported by 86 MPs, has claimed that 103 seats won at the last election would be threatened by the supplementary vote system.
Leading article, page 25
Andrew Marr, page 27Reuse content