Backbenchers push for compulsory voting

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The Labour Party is to consider bringing in compulsory voting to try to halt the worrying drop in turn-out in recent elections.

Amid signs that only about one in four people bothered to vote in yesterday's local authority elections in England, 55 Labour MPs have pledged to support a Bill that would make people liable to fines if they refused to vote in future general elections.

Although an Australian-style compulsory voting system would be highly controversial, support for the move in Labour's ranks has grown after the turn-out at last year's general election dropped to 59 per cent, the lowest since 1918. A Compulsory Voting Bill will be published next week by Gareth Thomas, MP for Harrow West. It has little chance of securing enough parliamentary time in the current session, but supporters hope that it will encourage debate on the issue.

Labour is to consider making it mandatory to vote and to join the electoral register during a policy review that will draw up its next general election manifesto. A discussion document sent to party members says that fewer than 90 per cent of people register in some low-income areas. It asks: "What are the arguments for and against compulsion either in voter registration or voting itself?"

Mr Thomas said: "As the turn-out falls, the rationale for compulsory voting becomes clear, particularly as low turn-outs help extremist parties."

The MP saw his proposal as part of the "rights and responsibilities" agenda favoured by Tony Blair. "It should be a duty to vote," he said.He believed that people should face a fine of between £20 and £50 for refusing to vote without a valid reason, such as illness. If people wanted to abstain, he said, they should prove they had made a conscious decision to do so.

Mr Thomas denied that the plan was designed to boost Labour's prospects. Traditionally the party has reaped most benefit from a high turn-out. "In my constituency at the general election, the Tories suffered as much from a low turn-out as we did," he said.

In the short term, the Government is expected to extend the use of all-postal ballots after evidence they boosted the turn-out in almost all the 13 areas where they were tried in yesterday's council elections.

Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, told the Cabinet that the number of people voting in the pilot areas was "looking pretty good".

In Chorley, the percentage of postal ballot forms received was 61 per cent, compared with a recent turn-out of 32 per cent in local elections, while in South Tyneside the figure increased from 27 per cent to 55 per cent.

Yesterday's elections were the biggest test of public opinion since last year's general election. They gave people the chance to pass judgement on Tony Blair a day after his fifth anniversary as Prime Minister.