Cook calls on Labour to back poll reform

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ROBIN COOK, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, yesterday delivered his bluntest warning yet to the party that it must back electoral reform - as John Smith was warned that his commitment to constitutional change will mean nothing without a change to the electoral system.

The Labour leader plans a keynote speech shortly highlighting sweeping constitutional change, including devolution, a Bill of Rights and freedom of information, as a key Labour theme - but without any commitment to electoral change. Yesterday, however, Jeff Rooker, a frontbench education spokesman and chairman of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, warned that 'all our fine policies about reforming the way the country is governed . . . will amount to nothing unless we face up to the fundamental flaws in our electoral system'.

His comments, on the eve of a two-day meeting of Labour's Plant committee which will attempt to reach agreement on changing the Commons voting system, came as Mr Cook warned that Labour had no future unless it changed.

Writing in New Statesman, Mr Cook says: 'There is no long-term future for Labour as a party of government if it cannot re-establish local representation in the areas of fastest population growth in the South and there is no serious prospect of Labour doing so without proportional representation.'

The party could 'court fresh disaster' by hoping the issue would go away. His comments came as a New Statesman poll of 52 of the party's 69 new MPs showed 34 in favour of changing the system with 13 against and 5 undecided.

The Plant committee will today examine a system proposed by Mr Rooker which would have produced a hung Parliament last April in which the Liberal Democrats held the balance of power. The system, which he believes is the minimum necessary to produce a Parliament reflecting votes cast, would see 500 MPs elected under the first past the post system, with 150 additional regional members from the best losers.

'By indicating our willingness to modernise our electoral system we send the long-awaited signal to millions of people who want change,' Mr Rooker said. 'Too many people see us as simply wanting to reverse the status quo and grab all the power on a minority of the vote.' By backing electoral reform Labour would show it was 'ready to take responsibility' and could be trusted, because unless it took more than half the votes it would not have more than half the seats.

The change would remove the 'elected dictatorship' which has seen the Conservatives win four elections on no more than 43 per cent of the vote, he added.