The Vote For Europe: Voters' apathy aids PR critics

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THE LOW turn-out in Britain in yesterday's European Parliament elections will be exploited by Labour opponents of proportional representation when they relaunch their campaign today against PR for House of Commons elections.

Opponents of electoral reform also believe the heavy Labour losses predicted in the Euro elections will boost their efforts to persuade the party to reject PR for Westminster.

Yesterday's poll was the first time PR had been used in a nationwide election in Britain and the results will be counted on Sunday, after most other EU countries vote at the weekend.

Officials in all main parties reported a low turn-out, reflecting a low- key campaign. They believe it will be lower than the 36 per cent in the 1994 Euro poll, and warned that only 20 per cent of people were bothering to vote in some areas.

Labour predicted a turn-out of between 25 and 30 per cent, which would be the lowest in Britain since the first direct elections to the Strasbourg Parliament in 1979. But Tory forecasts pointed to a turn-out in the low to mid thirties, suggesting that minor parties such as the Greens and the anti-Europe UK Independence Party had managed to mobilise their support, and that more people than expected were voting in Labour's traditional heartlands.

Britain could well record the lowest turn-out of all 15 EU states in this year's elections, although voting was said to be sluggish in Denmark and the Netherlands, where voting also took place yesterday.

Supporters of PR have always argued that voting reform would increase the turn-out by persuading people their votes would not be wasted if they lived in a safe seat. There has already been a backlash against PR inside the Labour Party since it failed to win an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections last month, which were also conducted on a PR system.

Supporters of the existing first-past-the-post system will today relaunch their campaign to persuade Tony Blair to drop plans for a referendum on whether to change the voting system for the Commons. They believe Labour will lose up to 20 of the 62 seats it won at the last Euro elections as a result of using PR, with the Liberal Democrats and Tories increasing their number of MEPs.

Stuart Bell, the leader of the campaign against PR, said yesterday's apathy had blown a hole in claims by supporters of electoral reform that it would lead to more active involvement in politics by the voters.

The Make Votes Count campaign, which supports reform, said PR was not to blame for the low turn-out. A survey of 200 voters outside polling stations found that 93 per cent of them thought the system "easy to use", despite warnings that it would be too complicated.

Labour is due to make a decision next year on last October's proposals to reform the system by a commission headed by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.

t Labour won an injunction yesterday against the British National Party to ban a racist leaflet being used in the election campaign. The injunction was served on the party leader, John Tyndall, who denied that the leaflet, delivered in Hull, was the responsibility of his national party. The judge upheld Labour's complaint that it was an incitement to racial hatred.