Labour 'cannot silence calls for electoral reform'

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LABOUR'S electoral reformers yesterday flatly rejected John Smith's view that the party's debate about electoral reform can be ended by a final decision at the party conference in October.

Jeff Rooker, chairman of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, said that would be impossible - whether or not the party rejected the idea.

His comments came after the Labour leader, in an interview in the Times yesterday, appeared to blow distinctly cool on the idea of PR for the Commons.

Mr Smith said he wanted the proposals due shortly from the Plant Commission on electoral systems - which the reformers believe will back change - to be actively debated. Labour would then 'take the decision at the conference and that is that'.

Asked if Labour would not be closing itself in if it refused PR, Mr Smith said: 'I do not think I comprehend that. It is much more about Labour's policies generally and our general approach.' He added that some people forgot that Labour had to win on first-past-the-post in 1996.

Mr Rooker, however, said it was 'not realistic' to believe a decision would be taken in October 'and that is that'. 'It never can be,' he said. If the reformers succeed in their aim of getting Labour to reject the present system, the debate on the precise details of Plant's favoured system would continue. And if the decision went against change, the argument would simply 'not go away'.

The party was already committed to a proportional system for its Scottish assembly and for London and would back proportional representation for the House of Lords, he said. With all that, and Mr Smith making constitutional and democratic issues a centre- piece of his approach, Mr Rooker said: 'There is no way that Labour can close the debate down on the House of Commons.'

If Labour was open about the defects of the electoral system it could attract support. 'But if we are mealy-mouthed and apathetic about it, we will lose support.'

No one denied that Labour had to win under the present system, he said, but Scots MPs did not all understand that the English boundary changes would deprive Labour of 12 to 15 seats. The Labour leadership could not say that it would back PR for a Scottish assembly, but then say the Commons would not change.

In his interview, Mr Smith said he wants the union vote to go in future Labour leadership elections, with only party members and MPs voting. On the key issue of selection of parliamentary candidates his 'guiding principle' remained 'one member, one vote'.