Kinnock urges Labour to back electoral reform

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LABOUR should back electoral reform, Neil Kinnock, the former party leader, says in an interview today. He urges John Smith, his successor, to 'get cracking' in establishing the party's policies for the next election.

Mr Kinnock's intervention in Labour's debate on proportional representation comes at a time when party sources believe its working party on voting systems, chaired by Professor Raymond Plant of Southampton University, is likely to split for the first time when it decides early next year on whether Labour should abandon first-past-the-post elections for the House of Commons.

Members believe the extremes on the committee - represented at one end by Margaret Beckett, Labour's deputy leader, who has long opposed proportional representation, and by Jeff Rooker, chairman of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform - are irreconcilable. A majority and a minority recommendation thus look likely.

Only an intervention from Mr Smith - who plans an important speech on Britain's 'creaking constitution' early in the new year - can prevent that, some believe. He would need to make it plain that he wants a recommendation for an alternative system, even if Labour then decides not to back it.

Labour's electoral reform campaigners argue that he cannot advocate the need for widespread constitutional change without addressing electoral reform. But some of Mr Smith's advisers believe a distinction can be drawn between the two.

Mr Kinnock makes his view public for the first time in a BBC 2 television interview tonight entitled The Lost Leader. He rejects criticism that raising the issue in the last week of the campaign - during which he refused to declare his own position - was a mistake.

That campaign experience, combined with the Government's difficulties, Labour's 23-point lead in a recent opinion poll and anger with the Liberal Democrats over their backing for the Government in last month's Maastricht 'no confidence' vote, have all hardened opinion against change in Labour's ranks. Mr Kinnock says: 'I want electoral reform. My only further deliberation is what form it should take. . . It's the only way to ensure that all parts of the country can be properly represented in a party or parties that can form a government.'

Mr Rooker said yesterday he was 'delighted' at the intervention, which gave a lead both to the Plant committee and the party leadership. Mr Rooker has put a paper to the Plant inquiry which proposes a minimal change to a 'mixed member system' of perhaps 500 constituency MPs elected by first past the post, topped up by about 150 additional members to give a more proportional result - a move which has won support from some other committee members.

In his television interview, Mr Kinnock says his advice to Mr Smith would be: 'My instinct is that the longer you give yourself with an assembled body of policies, the better it is.'

That included tax, where 'the general thrust' needed to be established early in the Parliament. Last time, Labour had not left itself enough time to explain changed policies. Asked if that meant 'you need to get cracking', Mr Kinnock said: 'No doubt about that at all.'

However, Mr Smith said in an ITN interview last night that Labour's need was to 'anticipate the challenges of several years ahead'. Asked if his style was not too laid back, he said: 'I don't believe you should rush forward and put everything in your window for next Wednesday.'