Labour clamps down on politicians who speak out for electoral reform

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Indy Politics

Labour politicians in favour of voting reform have been warned by party managers to stop "carrying on" about the introduction of proportional representation.

In a signal the Labour Party is becoming concerned about growing public support for electoral reform, Labour politicians who have spoken out say they have been rebuked by senior figures in the party.

Lord Lipsey, a Labour peer who led a debate in the Lords on the subject, was warned by his party not to question the legitimacy of the Labour Government - which was elected on only 35.2 per cent of the vote.

"The whips didn't like me carrying on about the Government's mandate. They was fed up by that. They were not best pleased," he said. "But the voting system belongs to the public not the politicians and it would be wrong to try to relegate an issue like this to a hole-in-the-corner private review."

The move follows the intervention of Lord Falconer of Thoroton who, after The Independent began its Campaign for Democracy, declared that there was no "groundswell" of public support for PR.

Yet around 100 Labour MPs support electoral reform, including several cabinet ministers including Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, and Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales.

To date, 36,670 members of the public have expressed their support for The Independent's campaign on electoral reform: 21,490 have signed a coupon demanding that Tony Blair introduce an urgent review of the voting system while a further 15,180 have signed an online petition calling for reform.

On Monday evening a seminar in the House of Commons on PR, hosted by the Young Fabians, was attended by dozens of young activists who support the Labour Party. Bob Ainsworth, the deputy chief whip, made the case against PR, arguing against two Labour colleagues. He warned: "We won this election. Don't allow people to throw that away."

Although the former minister said he was attending the debate in a personal capacity, the decision of a senior government whip to speak was interpreted as a sign that the Labour leadership is keen to knock down arguments in favour of abolishing the current first-past-the-post system.

Lord Lipsey was rebuked after he gained space in the Lords timetable for an entire debate on electoral reform. He said the whips were not pleased that he had raised the matter only weeks after a Labour victory. The Labour whips' office in the Lords said Labour figures had objected to party members raising PR after a Labour victory.

"There was a feeling that, a week or so after we had just won an election victory, for a Labour backbencher to stand up and question that raised eyebrows within the party. Going on about it seemed a bit odd," said a spokeswoman. "The whips knew there were raised eyebrows and reflected that."