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Wednesday, September 30, 1998 Published at 19:01 GMT 20:01 UK

Pressure on Blair over electoral reform

Same table, different sides: The Cabinet is divided on the issue of electoral reform

Two of the most mutually antagonistic camps within the Labour Party have joined forces to put pressure on the prime minister for cabinet members to join the internal debate on electoral reform.

In an joint-agreement leaders of Labour's First Past the Post Campaign and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform declared that party supporters "from the Cabinet to local party members" should be able to fight their corner on the issue of voting reform.

The move came on the eve of Labour's conference debate on electoral reform on Thursday.

Party insiders have been predicting the debate will show strong support for retaining the current first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections.

[ image: Anti and Pro: Jack Straw and Jack Cunningham are in opposite camps when it comes to PR]
Anti and Pro: Jack Straw and Jack Cunningham are in opposite camps when it comes to PR
Anti-voting reformers within Labour have been campaigning over the past year to drum up backing for the system that gave the party its 179-seat parliamentary majority at the last election.

The joint-agreement between the pro-and anti-reform camps will effectively back calls for cabinet members such as Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Home Secretary Jack Straw - both of whom oppose proportional representation (PR) - to rally grassroots Labour members against change.

Chancellor Gordon Brown and Commons Leader Margaret Beckett are also in favour of the status quo.

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam, along with Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancester and cabinet "enforcer" Jack Cunningham, are in favour of PR.

Drawn up by both sides

The agreement was drawn up by Ken Jackson, leader of engineers' union the AEEU - one of the main forces behind the First Past the Post Campaign - and Mary Southcott, secretary of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER).

[ image: Robin Cook is the most prominent cabinet supporter of reforming the voting system]
Robin Cook is the most prominent cabinet supporter of reforming the voting system
The LCER counts Robin Cook among its members.

One of the agreement's signatories is the Labour MP Stephen Twigg, chair of the LCER.

The agreement states: "The British people should have the right to decide whether their electoral system should be changed.

"We may differ on the outcome but we strongly agree that members of the Labour Party - right the way from the cabinet to local party members and in the unions - should have the right to take a view on the position the Labour Party should adopt."

It acknowledges that "individuals have divergent views" and calls for a "full and open debate".

Jenkins report imminent

The independent commission chaired by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Jenkins of Hillhead is expected to publish by the end of October its proposals for a "broadly proportional" voting system for Westminster elections.

[ image: Lord Jenkins: His commission is expected to report by the end of October]
Lord Jenkins: His commission is expected to report by the end of October
The system it recommends will then be put to the electorate in a referendum - as pledged in Labour's election manifesto, though some senior ministers said at the start of the week this does not mean it must take place in the government's current term of office.

That caveat to the manifesto pledge infuriated Liberal Democrats - especially since a pre-election joint agreement between Robin Cook for Labour and Lib Dem constitutional affairs spokesman Robert Maclennan made clear the poll should be in the first term.

Earlier on Wednesday Tony Blair acknowledged the government had always envisaged the referendum taking place in this parliament.


But he left himself room for manoeuvre by repeating, when pushed to confirm the referendum would be in this parliament, the non-committal formulation used by other ministers.

"It is important to wait and see what the Jenkins commission recommends because the system they recommend is an important part as to the decisions we make as to how best to proceed," he told BBC Radio Four's Today.

He also told BBC1's Breakfast News that Mr Cook was entitled to support PR if he wished.

But he added: "My traditional position has always been that I'm not persuaded of the case for PR but I will listen to what the Jenkins report says.

"I understand the difficulties people have with the present electoral system, but any change in the system - a big thing for the country - has got to be done in the country's interests."

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