Labour 'will embrace vote reform within ten years'

By Colin Brown
Published June 2nd 2005
The head of an independent think-tank has said the Labour Party would be odds-on to embrace electoral reform within the next 10 years to survive a "backlash" from the voters.

The support for proportional representation from the director of Demos will increase the political pressure on the Government to bow to the campaign for a fairer voting system.

Tom Bentley said Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, his likely successor, may resist PR now but their opposition will disappear after the next election.

He said many Labour marginal seats were more precarious after last month's general election and Mr Brown could be forced to accept PR in order to retain power.

"The chances of Blair and Brown changing their minds over the short term are virtually nil but the chances of a critical mass developing for PR across the middle of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats are pretty good, better than 50:50," he said.

"How else are you going to get a progressive consensus that Mr Brown is always talking about, especially if you look at the precarious nature of Labour's marginals at the 2005 election? Labour will be fighting for power in a very different political geography in the next five years."

Speaking to The Independent after launching a new policy initiative on the need for democratic reform, Mr Bentley said the next Labour leader after Mr Blair would be facing an increased threat of "backlash politics" by voters wanting to make a protest vote, as they had in May.

"Backlash politics is going to become a serious force in British politics," he said. "The consequences for PR are that it encourages compromise and consensus."

The general election gave Mr Blair a working majority although Labour's share of the vote dropped to 35.2 per cent, but many Labour MPs were left clinging on to very marginal seats that could go next time if there is another protest vote.

Mr Bentley said that the election result was a "travesty" because more people chose not to vote - 39 per cent - than those who voted for the governing Labour Party. He called for voting reform to be underpinned by a radical package of reforms to encourage more participation in decision-making by the public in provision of their own services.

The Demos agenda follows strong support for more local voting by modernisers in the Government, including Hazel Blears, the Home Office minister, and the think-tank could find it is pushing at an open door with Downing Street. Mr Bentley said directly elected judges would be a step too far but he called for direct elections for citizens' juries, neighbourhood councils, the boards of NHS bodies, and greater powers for parish councils.

The Government should try innovations such as holding a lottery to choose people to be consulted, or placed on boards or even made peers, Demos suggested.

The election result under the old first-past-the-post system left people in Britain facing a crisis of governance, he said. "Our politics duck the big and difficult issues like climate change and pensions reform but at the same time seems unable to put right even small things. It is not just new leaders but a new democratic settlement we need - a shift in the way we do democracy," said Mr Bentley.

"While our societies are wealthier, healthier and more open than perhaps ever before there is a crisis of collective confidence about how to hold them together and adapt to change."