Plant proposals fail to persuade party stalwarts: Alex Renton went to a Labour stronghold to ask rank-and-file members what they thought about PR

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The Independent Online
ANYONE involved in politics who thinks that in-depth discussion of electoral reform is an infallible route to a good snooze should have been in the Labour Club, Chester-le-street, last Friday evening.

Even though the Durham North Labour Party's executive committee had run through two hours of business prior to the opening of the county council election campaign, there was no shortage of voices and opinions prepared to go over the issues.

The executive committee and some party members - mostly male and middle-aged - had thought long and hard about proportional representation. And though no votes were taken, the sceptics by far outweighed those sold on the idea of reform. Even among pro-reformers there was hardly a voice to be heard in favour of the Plant Commission's Supplementary Vote idea.

First: should Labour be addressing the subject at all? Eileen Williamson, a newly elected member of Derwentside district council, said: 'Of course we should be discussing it now, rather than in the middle of an election campaign.' This, several people remembered ruefully, was what had happened in the last days of the 1992 campaign, and not to Labour's advantage.

Tom Conery, committee chairman and a member of the national policy review committee, was forthright: 'We have to win a general election before we can implement these airy-fairy ideas. I think discussing it now shows a weakness. Our resources should be going to target the South - to convince people there.' But Jenny Harrington, a part-time lecturer at Wearside College, disagreed: 'I think it is too naive to say, 'One more push and we'll get in next time'. I can't remember a more favourable set of circumstances than we had.' The rules probably had to be changed for Labour to win a majority.

Joe Williamson, a local Nalgo official, said that he was 'interested in general' in PR. 'I don't think it's different from any other item in the election manifesto . . . there will never be a good time to discuss it. Let's get it over with now.'

Bob Howard, regional secretary of the TUC, had no doubt the issue was a red herring. 'Our agenda should contain the real issues: jobs, poverty, the economy. Those issues are the ones to win people over. It's idealism that's needed to get Labour back into power.'

The constituency's MP, Giles Radice, added quietly that, while he thought Tom Conery was right that Labour's efforts had to be concentrated on the areas where it wasn't winning seats, he did think Labour must support a PR system, as 'part of our modernisation process'.

Did the room agree that PR was, in principle at least, right for democracy?

No, it did not. Bob Howard was typically firm: 'PR is corrupting because it stops people discussing the real issues.'

Brian Ebbatson asked: 'But what rules of the game are we going to have to allow the political system to address the issues? Plant has looked, in terms of the whole constitutional system, at an electoral system to deal with the corrupt system we presently have,' he said. 'We have to look at under-representation . . .'

Mr Ebbatson said that he was in favour of an Additional Member system under which a party's MPs are 'topped-up' from a list of additional candidates to give them as close a proportion of seats gained as votes cast. He pointed to a further advantage of such a system: 'Around here we don't have to work for every vote. Under an Additional Member system it would be worth us getting an 80 to 90 per cent turn-out because we would gain in the region.'

Mr Conery returned to the main point: 'Would you want a system that would have Paddy Ashdown as a permanent member of any Cabinet even though he came from the minority party?' This turned the discussion to the Liberal Democrats: it was recognised that any discussion of PR was inevitably leading Labour closer to coalition government. Ted Hallett, a retired Apex official and an old campaigner against Mr Ashdown in Yeovil, made it clear that he wanted no truck with the Liberal Democrats, and he didn't think that Labour voters wanted it either.

Derek Reay, a telephone engineer, regretted the compromise implicit in the adoption of PR. But he added: 'There is going to have to be a realignment of the centre left in British politics to remove the Tories, and I'm prepared to compromise some of my principles for that.'

The only whole-hearted enthusiast for PR was Mr Ebbatson. He said: 'We should have been discussing this 10 years ago: before we were forced to . . . We should give the signal to the electorate that we're not addressing PR for selfish reasons but because what we've got at the moment is bad for