100 Labour MPs back vote reform

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Pressure on Tony Blair to modernise the voting system increased last night as it emerged that almost 100 Labour MPs, including several cabinet ministers, support electoral reform.

Pressure on Tony Blair to modernise the voting system increased last night as it emerged that almost 100 Labour MPs, including several cabinet ministers, support electoral reform.

As the campaign for reform gained momentum at Westminster, the Prime Minister was warned that he would hasten the Labour Party's "political mortality" unless he changed the voting system before the next election. Labour MPs told him that the Tories could "sneak" back into power unless the way people vote was changed.

Several cabinet ministers, including Ruth Kelly, Peter Hain and Patricia Hewitt, have indicated they are in favour of a fresh look at the voting system.

They are backed by ministers including Bill Rammell, the Higher Education minister, Gareth Thomas, the International Development minister, and by senior backbenchers including Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, and John Denham, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee.

Allies of the Chancellor, including the former work and pensions secretary Andrew Smith, have also indicated their interest in voting reform. The Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform lists almost 100 MPs who have voiced their support for reform. It said yesterday that last week's election had "rung the death knell for first-past-the-post" and that electoral reform would ensure the longevity of a Labour government.

Demands for reform were reinforced by an analysis of the election which found that millions of votes were wasted. The report, by the Electoral Reform Society, found that only one in three MPs had majority support - the lowest in history. Some MPs, including George Galloway, were elected with less than 25 per cent support from their constituency.

The voting system produced "inequalities" across Britain, including in East Sussex where Labour won four out of the eight seats despite coming third with just over a quarter of the votes. A spokesman for the Electoral Reform Society said: "The result was demonstrably unfair. It awarded the immense powers of a government with a majority in the House of Commons to a party which enjoyed the support of scarcely one in three of those voting and a little over one in five of the total electorate. These figures are the worst ever."

Glenda Jackson, MP for Hampstead and Highgate, said: "First-past-the-post is now well past its sell-by date. There has long been a strong moral case for electoral reform. But there is now a strong political imperative that unless you reform our voting system there is a real danger the Tories will sneak back into office through the back door."

Last night, in a packed meeting at Westminster, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs met voting reformers, including the musician Billy Bragg, to plan a protest campaign called "Create a Storm for Reform".

Mr Bragg paid tribute to The Independent for highlighting the issue of electoral reform and called for "a national debate".

"The Independent is doing a great public service by highlighting this. I think The Independent has got the zeitgeist here. By dedicating its front pages, as it does, it is forcing this on to the agenda," Mr Bragg said. "It's really, really positive to actually show people the numbers. Because that is what we need to do: take forward this debate with straightforward, tangible arguments that people can relate to."

Ed Davey, a Liberal Democrat frontbencher and director of the Make Votes Count group, said: "Create a Storm for Reform is a big initiative and we are confident of increasing support on all sides of the house. Many people are alarmed at how the electoral system worked in this election and voting reform has rocked up the political agenda."

The Independent received hundreds of letters supporting its Campaign for Democracy. "For every one person who voted Labour, two voted for other parties and two abstained at this election," said Nina Temple of Make Votes Count, which represents electoral reform groups.

Senior Labour MPs who back reform warned that Downing Street was set against it. Denis MacShane, the former minister for Europe, said: "I am happy to look at other systems and am not against electoral reform. By all means look at it. I just don't think it will go anywhere."

The electoral alternatives

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Single transferable vote

Large constituencies return three, four or more members. Voters list candidates in order of preference. When first preferences are counted the least popular are discarded and their second preferences redistributed. The process is repeated until the required number of candidates are elected.

Additional member system

Voters have two votes, one for a constituency member and a second for a party list 'top-up'. Each constituency elects a first-past-the-post parliamentary member. Second votes determine the share of 'top-up' seats allocated to each party. Top-up seats are filled from central party lists.

Alternative vote

Similar to STV, but only one candidate is elected per constituency. Candidates need more than half the votes to win. Voters put candidates in order of preference. If no one gets more than half, the votes of the lowest-scoring candidates are redistributed until one gains a majority.

Alternative vote plus

A complex hybrid system drawn up by Lord Jenkins' commission on electoral reform. Constituents would vote for representatives on the alternative vote system. Voters would also choose a candidate or a party from an "open" county list to choose "top up" candidates based on the share of the vote.

WHO USES IT?

Single transferable vote

The Irish Republic and Northern Ireland Assembly elections use STV systems.

Additional member system

Used for Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

Alternative vote

Used to elect members of Australia's law-making House of Representatives.

Alternative vote plus

No one. The system was drawn up for Westminster parliamentary elections.

PLUSES AND MINUSES?

Single transferable vote

The STV system maintains a link between elected politicians and the community that elected them. However, because constituencies are large, that relationship is diluted. There are also concerns that the system can favour "second choice" candidates.

Additional member system

Keeps the strong link between some elected representatives and their communities and allows the final strength of the parties more closely to follow the proportion of votes cast. However, it lets losing candidates in through the "back door" on "closed" party lists.

Alternative vote

Maintains the link between voters and their representatives. However, the system is not proportional in that the results are not guaranteed to reflect the national pattern of voting and could even produce greater distortion than first-past-the-post.

Alternative vote plus

Maintains a link between representatives and local voters, while giving greater powers to voters as in the alternative vote system. It also allows a greater reflection of the national share of the vote, but would allow governments to form with a minority of the vote.

BETTER THAN FIRST-PAST-THE POST?

Single transferable vote

More proportional than first-past-the-post. Gives voters more control over candidates, specifically allowing voters to choose between candidates from the same parties. Ensures votes are not wasted. Also helps minor parties.

Additional member system

Better, but not perfect. Electing representatives from closed party lists gives a lot of power to party leaders. How much the result reflects the votes cast depends on the split between constituency and "top-up" seats.

Alternative vote

Slightly better, because it gives voters a bit more power by ensuring that they can still have some voice even though their first-choice candidate might be unlikely to win. But does not help candidates for smaller parties.

Alternative vote plus

It is more proportional and gives voters greater control over constituency representatives. It also avoids the problems of handing parties power over who gets elected from "closed" party lists.

HOW WOULD IT HAVE AFFECTED THE ELECTION RESULT?

Single transferable vote

Could have increased the anti-Blair vote by giving voters a choice between Labour candidates with differing political views. Would have increased the Lib Dem and the Green vote because second preferences tend to favour smaller parties.

Additional member system

Hard to say, but the result would have much more closely followed the national share. Greens and UKIP would probably gain one or two seats, while Lib Dems would have done much better. Some defeated ministers would still be in Parliament in "top-up" seats.

Alternative vote

The system probably would have still resulted in a Labour majority. Because constituencies would still elect just a single member, small parties would continue to be frozen out.

Alternative vote plus

Likely to have resulted in a Labour majority, albeit a small one.

Labour MPs speak out on electoral reform

Bob Marshall-Andrews, Medway

I believe in proportional representation as soon as possible. If the events of 5 May demonstrated anything it is the unfairness of a system that allows a government to be elected with 35 per cent of the popular vote. It is the system of a banana republic. But I think the chances of the current government changing it are nil. Such a change requires a wise and fair government.

Ian Cawsey, Brigg and Goole

I've been a member of the Labour Party's Campaign for Electoral Reform for a long time - and you can draw your own conclusions from that. It is an issue on which I have had an active engagement in discussions. But as an assistant Government whip, I am not in a position to make public declarations since it does not feature in the party's manifesto and does not form part of the Government's planned reforms.

John Grogan, Selby

Fairness has to be at the root of any electoral system. We have to face the fact we only got 36 per cent of the vote and the system favoured us. But that is a temporary thing and it could just as easily favour a hard-right Tory party getting the same percentage. I believe there is a progressive majority in this country which is likely to be there for some time and we have nothing at all to fear from electoral reform.

David Kidney, Stafford

I am sympathetic to the arguments about Parliament more closely reflecting the whole of the electorate in the country - but I do value the link between the MP and constituency, which PR would remove. I favour the alternative vote argument. A lot of people think that would be a form of proportional representation but it isn't. Under an AV system in 1997, Labour would have had an even greater majority.

Martin Linton, Battersea

The system we have at present is an unsophisticated and blunt electoral instrument. As a first step we should introduce a preferential system which would at one stroke get rid of tactical voting and allow people to express preferences between the political parties. I would also like to see us move to a system where at least a few of the seats in the Commons are elected by a list so people no longer feel their vote is wasted.

Keith Vaz, Leicester East

There is a need for debate, which I am all in favour of, although I am very happy with the present system, and don't think there is a system more suitable, or that I would find more applicable. I think we should have a referendum on the issue if there wasn't already a referendum on the European Constitution. People do tend to have doubts about the system. I think we should work at it rather than brush it under the carpet.

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