Labour Party ready to offer electoral reform

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Tony Blair may revive plans for electoral reform in an attempt to win the support of the Liberal Democrats if Labour's majority is cut sharply at the next general election.

Informal talks between senior Labour and Liberal Democrat figures have already taken place about whether the parties would support the introduction of the alternative vote (AV) at general elections. Under this system, used in Australia, voters mark their candidates in order of preference. The bottom one drops out and the second preferences are redistributed until one person secures more than half of the votes cast.

The revival of reform may form part of a drive by Labour to win back the support of people who have deserted the party in protest at the Iraq war. In the run-up to the election, the party will highlight policies that appeal to liberal, progressive voters - such as the freedom of information law which takes effect in January - and plans to remove the 92 remaining hereditary peers and having a partly or fully elected House of Lords.

Charles Kennedy said this week he would not prop up a minority Labour government, but ministers believe he would be open to a deal if electoral reform was offered. The Liberal Democrat leader would face opposition in his party because AV is not the pure form of proportional representation it favours. The system would, however, boost the number of Liberal Democrat MPs and could help to keep the Tories out of power. One attraction is that the system keeps the traditional link between MPs and their constituencies.

A review of the electoral systems used has begun at the Department of Constitutional Affairs and is expected to report soon after the general election likely to be next May.

The move to introduce AV has the support of Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons; Peter Mandelson, the close Blair ally who will soon become a European commissioner, and others. Supporters argue that Labour and the Liberal Democrats could reach a deal on AV without entering a formal coalition. In return for reform, Mr Kennedy's party might agree to back Labour in most Commons votes, while retaining its freedom to oppose policies with which it disagreed.

A pledge of general support could help Mr Blair survive rebellions by Labour MPs. If Labour's majority is cut significantly, many of the casualties will be Blairite MPs, while most left-wingers have safer seats.