62 per cent of the electorate disagree with Blair on electoral reform

Published May 17th 2005 in The Independent
Public support for a fairer voting system has reached record levels since the general election and is now favoured by a majority of nearly 3 to 1.

A survey by NOP for The Independent found that 62 per cent of people agree that Britain should bring in proportional representation (PR) so that the number of MPs each party secures matches its votes more closely. Only 17 per cent disagree. NOP's finding is believed to show the strongest support yet for a switch to a proportional system.

When the same question has been asked on a number of occasions since 1992, support for PR has ranged from 44 per cent to 49 per cent.

Support for change appears to have grown following the debate over whether Labour secured a genuine mandate on 5 May after winning just over a third of the votes cast and the backing of just over one in five.

According to NOP, people in all age groups and social classes wanted to see PR introduced for Westminster elections by a wide margin. The strongest support was found among the AB social class and the 25 to 34 and 45 to 54 age groups.

The survey of 952 people, taken between Friday and Sunday, suggested that, while people support PR for future elections, they acknowledge that Labour should be in power after winning under the present system. Some 57 per cent believed it was right for Labour to win an overall majority because they won more votes than anyone else, while 34 per cent thought it was wrong for the party to enjoy an overall majority.

Campaigners for reform welcomed NOP's findings last night. Nina Temple, the director of Make Votes Count, said: "This poll shows that there has been a strong movement in public opinion in favour of voting reform since the election. People have been shocked that a government can be formed with such a small minority of votes cast."

She added: "Tony Blair says he intends to run a listening government. I hope he is listening to these early rumblings of a democratic revolution. And that he will use his third term to bring about a new, empowering voting system."

Matthew Taylor, the chairman of the Liberal Democrats' parliamentary party, said: "The British public has a strong sense of democracy and fair play which the jump in support for PR reflects. Labour had the support of little more than a third of those who voted on 5 May. How low can government support go before it can no longer claim to govern for the nation?"

Today the campaign for voting reform will be stepped up with a three-hour vigil near Downing Street by supporters from the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. A letter will be delivered to No 10 urging Tony Blair to open up the Government's "secret" review of voting systems to allow a full public debate on alternatives to first-past-the-post. The Department of Constitutional Affairs, headed by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, is carrying out an internal government review of the use of PR for elections to the Welsh, Scottish and London assemblies and the European Parliament.

Campaigners may set up their own public inquiry if the Government does not make its own one more transparent.

In a change of tactics, supporters of reform are to consider whether to back a compromise that would fall short of full-scale PR. Under the alternative vote system, used in Australia, people mark candidates in order of preference. The bottom candidate drops out and the second preferences of the people who supported him or her are redistributed until one candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote.

Although this method is not proportional, some campaigners believe it is the best they can achieve from the Blair Government and say it could be a first step towards full PR.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, an opponent of PR, said at the weekend there was "quite a strong case" for the alternative vote. But he warned it would "appear self-serving" for Labour to introduce it, as experts have said the party's 67-seat majority would have risen to 98 if it had been used on 5 May.

The alternative vote is also backed by Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland and Welsh Secretary. And it was floated, with Mr Blair's tacit support, by his close ally Peter Mandelson, the former cabinet minister, five years ago.