'Sceptical' Prescott made head of committee on PR

Click to follow
Indy Politics

Tony Blair had been accused of being "deaf to the public mood" on voting reform after putting John Prescott, the cabinet member most vehemently opposed to proportional representation, in charge of the committee that looks at electoral reform.

Tony Blair had been accused of being "deaf to the public mood" on voting reform after putting John Prescott, the cabinet member most vehemently opposed to proportional representation, in charge of the committee that looks at electoral reform.

The Prime Minister has replaced the pro-reform cabinet minister, Peter Hain, as chairman of the cabinet committee on electoral policy with Mr Prescott, in a move that infuriated MPs in favour of PR. Mr Prescott has made it clear to colleagues that there is no question of reviving PR for parliamentary elections.

The deputy Prime Minister allowed PR to be used for the London mayoral elections, the regional assemblies and the Scottish and Welsh devolved bodies. However, he has made it clear he is against PR for Westminster elections because he believes it would break the link between MPs and constituencies. He is also against PR for local elections on the same principle.

In another decision that signals his opposition to PR, Mr Blair formally abolishing the Joint Consultative Committee (JCC), he set up with the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown as a vehicle to discuss PR. The scrapping of the JCC slammed the door on the prospect of Labour-Liberal Democrat talks on voting reform and sent a powerful signal that relations between Labour and the Liberal Democrats have hit a new low. Mr Prescott has told colleagues: "That's all dead now.''

A list of cabinet committees, released yesterday, for the first time did not include the JCC, a committee which was seen as heralding a new era of Labour co-operation with the Liberal Democrats when it was set up in 1997.

The move angered the Liberal Democrats, who said it showed that Mr Blair was not in touch with "the public appetite" for electoral reform. In the past, the JCC has discussed electoral reform and its abolition is a symbolic gesture slamming the door on progress on PR.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, expressed disappointment at the move and paid tribute to The Independent's Campaign for Democracy.

'The Government should be more careful in checking its facts and more open to the public mood," Mr Kennedy said. "It is foolish to close the door to a mechanism for talks on PR when there is clearly a public appetite for a sensible debate in the wake of the recent election result.

"The Independent is doing a great service in raising this issue prominently. It is disappointing to find this government so deaf to the public mood."

As chair of the committee, Mr Hain has said publicly that he favours scrapping the first-past-the-post voting system and moving to the alternative vote system, under which the public would vote for first, second and third choice candidates according to their preference.

Although he continues to sit on the committee, he has been stripped of the chairmanship. The committee also includes several anti-PR ministers including Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, who was lambasted last week after claiming there was "no groundswell" of support for electoral reform.

Mr Prescott's appointment has been interpreted as way to ignore the growing appetite for electoral reform. Since The Independent launched its campaign it has been contacted by more than 20,000 readers including around 10,000 people who have sent in coupons printed in the paper calling on Tony Blair to institute urgent reform of the electoral system.

Yesterday Lord Maclennan, the Liberal Democrat peer who sat on the Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) between 1997 and 2001, said the scrapping of the JCC and appointment of John Prescott "sends a message that the Prime Minster does not wish to be troubled about PR for the time being. The popularity of PR has been clear for a long time. Opinion polls show that. The issue is definitely bubbling in different spheres and it will be difficult to turn the gas down."

Comments