Plant study likely to seek PR for second chamber

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LORD PLANT, chairman of Labour's lengthy internal study into whether it should support proportional representation for the Commons, is battling against the prospect of an inconclusive report being handed to the party's National Executive Committee next month.

It is virtually certain that the final report by the Plant commission, which will go on to be debated at the annual conference in the autumn, will advocate proportional representation for a proposed second chamber, replacing the House of Lords.

That in itself would be a significant change that would chip away at resistance to the scrapping of the first-past-the-post system. But there are concerns among would- be reformers that the crucial question of the preferred method of electing MPs could be fudged.

It is understood that Lord Plant is determined to produce at least majority and minority reports - complete consensus is impossible to achieve - and is against a report that would merely repeat the options.

That upshot would please Margaret Beckett, the deputy leader, the strongest opponent of change within the commission.

It may also suit John Smith, the Labour leader. He constantly emphasises that the next election has to be won on first past the post, but is likely to want to keep the PR option open.

A slim majority of the 18-strong commission had been expected to endorse some kind of proportional system. But the finely balanced decision could have been upset by the recent death of one member, the Labour peer Lord Underhill, a convert to change. 'It was close before,' one member in favour of reform said. 'Now it's going to be even more close.'

Reaching a conclusive result is further complicated by divisions between two types of proportional system - forms of the alternative vote and additional member systems.

The commission had its penultimate meeting last night to thrash out details. But with some members absent, final decisions will be left to a meeting on 31 March.

Part of the draft report written by Lord Plant, professor of politics at Southampton University, proposes that members of the second chamber should be elected from regional party lists.

Because the chamber would be small, members would not need close constituency links like MPs, while a regionally based list system would reflect its responsibility to represent the 'regions and nations' of Britain, the report argued.

The system would mean that electors would vote not for individual candidates but for a party list. To avoid concentrating political patronage in the hands of party officials, Labour could insist on elections to decide who should be placed on the list, the report said.

Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader, pledged to campaign against PR. 'The rational argument is that since it's producing coalition governments it isn't democratic,' he told BBC radio. 'And since it's coalition governments it won't give the Labour Party the opportunity to make the changes in society we want to see.'