Party backs referendum on reform of Commons

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Political Correspondent

The right of the British people to decide in a referendum whether they want to reform the Commons voting system was comfortably backed by delegates yesterday, to the delight of campaigners for proportional representation.

Labour Party chiefs also avoided a potentially divisive vote on speeding up elected regional assemblies for England.

A leadership aide insisted party managers were surprised at the ease with which the 2-1 majority by a show of hands reaffirmed the commitment to the plebiscite put in place by John Smith. An expected card vote by one of the unions hostile to the policy never materialised after a heavy lobbying exercise by its supporters and subtle pressure from the party high command.

The move avoids a potentially damaging rift between Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. The Labour leader said recently that he remained "unpersuaded" of the merits of the reform. But a no vote by the conference could have jeopardised discussions the two parties are poised to begin on how to advance through Parliament agreed reforms such as a Scottish parliament - itself to be elected by the "additional member" form of proportional representation.

Urging the leadership to drop the commitment, Alistair Watson, a councillor from Glasgow Pollock, said: "A referendum offers a way forward only for the minorities such as the Liberals and the Scottish nationalists and the fascists. Why should we get into bed with the decaying corpse of liberalism? We should always remember that to depend on the Liberals is to dance with the devil."

However, his motion, was easily defeated in a second show of hands.

Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, made no secret of his own backing for first-past-the-post, but urged delegates: "There are many in this party, and outside, who take a different view. The result is that the very legitimacy of this, the most basic feature of our democracy, has been called into question. It is now time to resolve this matter.

"Two years ago John Smith gave a pledge to the British people that his Labour government would give them the final word.... I ask you to ensure that his pledge is reaffirmed."

He came under fire for Labour's proposal to delay elected regional assemblies in England with the prior support of councils and local people in a referendum.

Nick Anderson, a GMB union delegate and chairman of Labour's Northern Regional Council, declared: "The northern region does not need a referendum." He demanded: "Is the Labour Party really committed to the principle of decentralisation? Does it really believe that decisions should be made as close as possible to the people whose lives those decisions affect?"

But Mr Anderson was persuaded not to press his motion to a vote, however. Labour's final proposals for devolution will not come up for approval until next year's conference.

Frank Dobson, the environment spokesman, won a standing ovation with a speech attacking Tory party "rackets" and a strong pledge to end compulsory competitive tendering for council services, All the Tories did was hand power to countless quangos, he said.

Mr Dobson added that each pounds 1 that compulsory competitive tendering saved cost the taxpayer pounds 2 to make up for the extra benefits paid out and tax not taken in because of lower wages. "We won't impoverish dinner ladies and call it efficiency," he declared.