Commons backs Brown over voting

Gordon Brown's plans for a referendum on changing the voting system were comfortably passed by MPs last night.

Despite strong opposition from the Tories and some Labour backbenchers, the Commons voted 365 to 187 to ask the British public whether first-past-the-post should be scrapped in the biggest shake up of the electoral system in generations.

But the Government faces an uphill battle to force the changes through Parliament with the prospect of stiff resistance in the House of Lords and time running out before the general election.

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Analysis of the division list showed there were only three Labour rebels when it came to a vote.

They were former Minister Meg Munn (Sheffield Heeley), Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington), and Kelvin Hopkins (Luton N).

Gordon Brown's proposal would allow people to choose whether to adopt an Alternative Vote (AV) system which would allow them to rank candidates in order of preference.

Critics accused Mr Brown of a cynical ploy in order to win the support of Liberal Democrat MPs in the event of a hung parliament at the General Election. The Government also came under fire over the 80m cost of the plebiscite at a time when public spending is under intense pressure due to the record budget deficit.

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The proposals came in committee stage amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill tabled by Justice Secretary Jack Straw.

He told MPs the expenses scandal had led to a "crisis of confidence" in the political system and in politicians.

He added: "This is an important debate. This subject is a fundamental plank of our democracy and it comes at a time when this House is held in dangerously low regard.

"The alternative vote takes on the considerable strengths of our system and I suggest builds on it.

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"We propose a referendum because we believe it is not for us to decide, but it is important the people should have that choice."

Labour former Minister Tom Harris (Glasgow S) raised laughter as he asked Mr Straw: "Do you attribute the stainless reputation of Italian politicians to the fact that they have proportional representation?" Mr Straw said the AV system was not proportional representation.

Shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve said he felt "truly sorry" for Mr Straw for having to present the Prime Minister's plans to Parliament.

"The Secretary of State was fighting, I think, a rearguard action against the Prime Minister, who was both losing the plot and was taking leave of his political sense in a desperate bid to stay in office," he said.

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He expressed his backing for first-past-the post, saying it "delivers clear, clean results".

Tory former Cabinet Minister John Gummer (C, Suffolk Coastal) said it was a "scandal" MPs were being asked to approve around 80m to pay for the referendum and accused Mr Brown of putting "his own future before that of this nation".

Liberal Democrat spokesman David Howarth said Mr Brown had undergone a "deathbed conversion" on electoral reform.

A party move calling for single transferable voting was heavily defeated.

Later, a move to guarantee general election votes are counted on polling night was backed without a vote.