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Last Updated: Friday, 27 February, 2004, 13:23 GMT
PR 'a price worth paying'
Labour Scottish conference
The Labour conference has been debating the issue of PR
Delegates at the Scottish Labour Party Conference have been told that the move to bring in proportional representation was the price of coalition government.

Some activists, who want to keep the first past the post system, attacked the plans during a debate in Inverness.

Despite few backing PR, those who want the status quo did not call for a vote.

Scottish minister Andy Kerr said that with just 34% of the vote last May, Labour's only option had been to broker a deal with the PR-supporting Lib-Dems.

The debate on Friday came as campaigners demanded a greater voice for grass roots members.

Dave Watson, the Scotland organiser of the union Unison, believes ordinary members should be consulted more and "not just be told".

PR is a kid-on. Do not accept it, but be accountable to the electorate and stick with first past the post
Gerry Leonard
Glasgow councillor
The party was against PR, but the reform was conceded to the Liberal Democrats in coalition talks.

It will mean that the new voting system will be introduced for local government elections in 2007.

Mr Kerr, who is finance minister north of the border, reminded activists that the Scottish Parliament itself had a voting system partly based on PR and declared: "The die was cast on PR for local government a long time ago."

He said those opposed to PR in local government elections could not be opposed to coalitions as there had been coalition government in the executive and there were currently 11 coalitions out of 32 Scottish councils.

And the European elections in June would be fought under PR.

Mr Kerr added: "The challenge is not the system, it is the battle for hearts and minds, the fight for every Labour vote.

'Deafening silence'

"We know we don't lose elections when we change electoral systems - we lose them when the political argument is lost.

"Delivering what people want is what matters."

"PR was the one thing that the Liberals really wanted above everything else.

"But the price for them was high.

"They agreed a whole raft of our election commitments."

Scottish Labour Party HQ sign
The conference has been hearing from rank and file members
But the debate had an overwhelming majority of speakers opposed to PR.

Bill Butler, Labour MSP for Glasgow Anniesland, told delegates that at the last election campaign, there had been "a deafening silence" from the public on PR.

He said: "Local government opinion is overwhelmingly against the single transferable vote system - not out of self-interest but because they know it's not in the public interest.

"Local government will not be improved by tinkering with the electoral system but by improving local services."

"To impose an unwanted change on the basis of little or no evidence that it will improve matters will not produce one extra school or deliver one extra community centre."

And Gerry Leonard, a Glasgow councillor, said: "This government was elected on first past the post - let's not forget that."

He defended Labour's record in Glasgow, saying its achievements included delivering the lowest council tax rise in Scotland and insisted: "We don't need to change the system.

'Tail wagging dog'

"The opposition needs to change the system - because they can't win.

"PR is a kid-on. Do not accept it, but be accountable to the electorate and stick with first past the post."

The proportional system came in for a savage denunciation from Jim McCabe, leader of North Lanarkshire Council, who complained that, at Holyrood, it had led to a situation where a party with 14% of the vote ended up as "the tail wagging the dog".

And he warned: "That is what will happen in local authorities if this is accepted."

He said the change could lead to Labour losing 150 council seats while the main beneficiaries would be the SNP, who stood to gain 100 seats, and the Conservatives.

But Deputy Health Minister Tom McCabe argued for the executive's case and said: "The achievements of the first four years of the Scottish Parliament were on Labour values and the stability created to secure those values."

The Scotland Act had made coalitions inevitable, said Mr McCabe.

He told the conference: "There are hard choices as all of us know as political activists.

"But we know the strength of our determination and our values can deliver the results we have achieved and the same and more can apply to local government."

Blair addresses Scots delegates
27 Feb 04  |  Scotland
Labour hopes for easier ride
26 Feb 04  |  Scotland

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