Cabinet ministers call for overhaul of voting system

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Pressure for reform of Britain's antiquated voting system intensified last night as Labour heavyweights called for an overhaul of the way MPs are elected.

Jack Straw, the Leader of the Commons, told a Labour conference fringe meeting organised by The Independent that he had "no problem" with a move away from the traditional system for choosing MPs if it was approved by a referendum.

Mr Straw, who has always been regarded as a staunch opponent of electoral reform, backed a move to the alternative vote system, under which voters can express a preference for several candidates in each seat.

Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary and a contender for Labour's deputy leadership, repeated his call for the first-past-the-post system to be replaced with the alternative voting system, which has become central to his campaign for the Labour deputy leadership.

They were joined by the former health secretary Alan Milburn, a leading Blairite figure in the party, who also backed a move to an alternative vote system for Westminster. Under the alternative voting system, voters in a parliamentary constituency would be able to list candidates in order of preference. Second-choice votes are taken into account until one candidate achieves the support of more than half of the electorate.

Backers of the system say it would retain the traditional link between MPs and their local constituencies, but produce a result at Westminster more in keeping with public opinion. Mr Hain said that Labour had to become again "the party of democratic renewal", including electoral reform of the House of Commons.

He said: "I have always supported the alternative vote ... But we should not hand down policies such as this from on high. The type of electoral reform we support should be a product of real debate in the party and in the country."

Electoral reform would form a key part of any future pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the event of a hung parliament.

At the fringe meeting titled "How do Labour win a fourth term?", speakers agreed that tackling climate change also had to be given a far higher profile by the Government in the post-Blair era. The high-profile panel - Charles Clarke, Peter Hain, Harriet Harman, Alan Milburn and Jack Straw - all argued that the party needed a phase of renewal to win back the trust of the electorate. They agreed the party faced its biggest challenge for more than a decade to see off a Tory challenge.

Mr Hain said: "We have to be the greens, not just the reds of British politics by placing the future of the environment at the heart of everything we do."

Mr Clarke, the former Home Secretary, agreed that green issues and sustainability had to be at the "core of all our politics", including tax, transport and energy policies "in a much more profound way". Some of the loudest applause was reserved for Ms Harman when she urged Labour to "take off the gloves" in its fight with David Cameron's rejuvenated Tories.

"We must banish for ever the idea that we can drift into opposition and that is where we will renew the party," she said.