16,673 and counting: Campaign forces Labour and Tories on to the defensive

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The Labour and Conservative leadership were forced on the defensive over voting reform as the Lord Chancellor was accused of "running scared" over the issue and Michael Howard tried to mobilise the Tory rank and file to oppose change.

Conservative headquarters responded to The Independent's Campaign for Democracy with a detailed briefing for party activists attacking reform.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, was accused of not taking the issue seriously by refusing to respond to a House of Lords debate inspired by the paper's campaign.

Independent readers have responded in their thousands to our Campaign for Democracy. A total of 16,673 readers have signed the petition demanding Tony Blair urgently reform the voting system. Almost 8,800 have sent in coupons and another 7,874 readers have signed an online petition on the Independent's website. Hundreds more have sent in letters to the paper supporting our campaign.

Lord Falconer has asked his deputy, Baroness Ashton, to reply to a debate on voting reform on Thursday where Labour and Liberal Democrat peers intend to challenge the Government's refusal to introduce PR. His spokesman said the Lord Chancellor was "not available" to reply to a debate, being led by Lord Lipsey, the pro-PR Labour peer.

Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat MP for Kingston and Surbiton, accused the Lord Chancellor of avoiding scrutiny. He said: "It is ironic that the Tories are trying to reduce democracy in their own party by changing the leadership voting rules. Just like Lord Falconer they are "now running scared on the debate on PR".

Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrat MP for Eastleigh, said Lord Falconer was wrong to claim there was little public support for PR and criticised him for not attending Thursday's House of Lords debate.

"This is an absolutely crucial debate that should be dealt with at the highest level. It is extraordinary that it should be palmed off by Lord Falconer on a junior minister. The Conservative briefing note shows the Tories are now on the back foot on this issue. The weakness of their arguments is astonishing. Many PR systems maintain the constituency link and allow majority governments with 44 to 45 per cent of the vote."

Conservative headquarters devoted a third of its daily briefing to the Campaign for Democracy. The document says: "The Independent, Liberal Democrats and some Labour MPs have been calling for proportional representation to be introduced for elections to the House of Commons and for Britain's traditional voting system of first past the post to be scrapped.

"Conservatives as a whole continue to support the traditional British voting system of first past the post. It ensures accountability at a local and national level, and provides for stable and effective government. Voters have the power to kick a bad government out."

Keith Best, chairman of the pressure group Conservative Action for Electoral Reform, condemned the party for "burying its head in the sand" and failing even to debate change.