Hain urges Labour to act soon on electoral reform

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Indy Politics

A cabinet minister has called on Labour to change the voting system for Westminster elections from a position of strength before it loses its overall majority.

Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales, welcomed The Independent's Campaign for Democracy and this week's independent report from the Power commission, which backed the campaign's demand for an end to the first-past-the-post system.

But he urged supporters of proportional representation (PR) to accept the alternative vote system used in Australia. Under this, people mark their candidates in order of preference, the bottom candidate drops out and second preferences are redistributed until one person secures more than 50 per cent of the votes.

Mr Hain welcomed hints from the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, that electoral reform was back on Labour's agenda but urged the party not to wait until there was a hung parliament. "Electoral reform rises and falls with the electoral cycle," said Mr Hain. "The main parties have usually been interested in it when they have done badly. If you are going to do this, you ought to do it out of principle rather than whether it suits the party."

Mr Hain said the House of Commons would only vote for an electoral system that retained the "vital link" between an MP and his or her single-member constituency. "That is the only realistic way forward," he said. "There is a tremendous attachment to having an individual MP that voters can get rid of or re-elect."

He urged Sir Menzies Campbell, the new Liberal Democrat leader, not to press for full-scale PR, saying it could mean multi-member constituencies with MPs representing five times as many people as at present.

Mr Hain joined Mr Brown in welcoming the thrust of the Power commission report, which warned that politics faced meltdown because of public disengagement and low turnouts.

"The Power commission has shone a bright spotlight on to this agenda," he said. "There is a sliding scale here. If we do not do something to respond, that slide will continue.

"It will be very dangerous for democracy if we don't do something about this. We are already becoming perilously close to the Americanisation of politics with only half the electorate turning out."

Mr Hain, who pressed for reform of the House of Lords when he was Leader of the Commons, said a majority of peers should be elected but said the powers of the second chamber should be curbed so that it did not challenge the supremacy of the Commons. Describing the Lords' procedures as "archaic", he insisted the goal was not to neuter the chamber, but said any reform must address the frequent defeats it inflicted on Labour.

He said of the Power report: "I share the analysis but I think some of prescriptions are not necessarily a cure for the problem." For example, he said there was a case for allocating more parliamentary time for backbench Bills.