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Thursday, October 29, 1998 Published at 13:40 GMT

Cautious reaction on voting reform

Jack Straw: No firm commitment on a referendum this Parliament

The government has reacted cautiously to Lord Jenkins' proposals and is yet to set a date for a referendum on electoral reform.

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, refused to guarantee the issue would be put before the people during this parliament.

He said: "The government wants to study the report in detail. It is also keen to encourage a wide debate in parliament, in political parties and across the country as a whole.

Proprtional Representation Slideshow
"No decisions have been taken as to the timing of a referendum on this issue."

Lord Jenkins' proposals for a more proportional system for Westminster elections is likely to split the Labour party with some MPs already saying moves for reform will fail.

The commission's proposals to replace the current system with a mixture of first-past-the-post and proportional representation has the backing of the Liberal Democrats.

The Conservatives remain firm proponents of the existing first-past-the-post system.

Make Votes Count, the cross party pressure group, which favours proportional representation, backed the Commission's findings. MP Stephen Twigg said voting reform was just "one part of a broad movement to reconnect people with politics in this country".

Manifesto commitment

Although a referendum on electoral reform is a Labour manifesto commitment there is some confusion over when it will be delivered.

The cabinet itself is split on the issue, with some ministers saying a referendum must take place this parliament while others favour a delay.

The home secretary has already set out several pre-conditions before a referendum could take place, which suggest little action will be taken immediately.

Mr Straw said: "The commission's report makes clear that the system recommended could not be introduced until the election after next."

He added legislation would have to be passed before a referendum can take place. And that if the people then voted for change the lengthy process of redrawing the constituency boundaries would begin.

He also said that the government would need to digest the proposals of the Neill Commission on party funding, which has called for changes in the way referendums are conducted before putting the proposals before the people.

The prime ministers has responded to the commission saying Lord Jenkins "makes a well-argued and powerful case for the system it recommends".

Alliance against change

The Tory party chairman, Michael Ancram, said he would work alongside Labour MPs and trade unionists to block reform.

[ image: Michael Ancram: Drumming up cross party support to kill reform]
Michael Ancram: Drumming up cross party support to kill reform
He said he was "delighted" to hear many Labour MPs oppose the plans. "There will be a broad coalition of opposition to this - the broader it is the stronger it is.

"I'm sure if it came to a referendum campaign those of us who opposed it would be prepared to work together."

But Mr Ancram hopes the proposals will not be put to the people: "I would like to see this die now," he said.


He said that "Lord Jenkins has an agenda that both Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown see some advantages in.

"We are satisfied with the present system. It's the playing field that has been there for the whole of this century. We are happy to play on this playing field."

Despite the hostility to the proposals in some quarters many Liberal Democrats fear they do not go far enough.

[ image: Charles Kennedy:
Charles Kennedy: "A seminal moment in British politics"
But Lib Dem MP Charles Kennedy said activists in his party who wanted a "pure" system of proportional representation should accept Lord Jenkins's proposals.

He told the BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Our party can buy this system and our party certainly should buy this system."

He added that the Liberal Democrats expected Mr Blair to honour Labour's promise to hold a referendum on the proposals before the next general election.

"The prime minister and Robin Cook and others have made it perfectly clear that the intention is to have referendum on this proposal within the scope of this parliament and that is something we support and we should welcome."

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