Classic Podium: Home thoughts from abroad

From the Richard Dimbleby Lecture by Roy Jenkins, President of the European Commission, urging reform and the creation of a new radical centre party (22 November 1979)
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The Independent Culture
I BELIEVE that the case for proportional representation is overwhelming. It is clearly a fairer system, accepted as such by the great majority of democratic countries. The onus of proof must be upon those who wish to defend the existing system, under which you give only a handful of parliamentary seats to 20 per cent, or even 25 per cent, of the electorate. And, as there is a greater alienation from the two big parties, it has become more indefensible. And as it becomes more indefensible, so the alienation feeds upon itself.

Traditionally, the obvious case in equity was, in Britain, defeated by three considerations. First, it could be said that it was only a little inequity, because the overwhelming majority seemed happy voting for and working with one or other of the big parties. As the numbers voting for those parties, and, perhaps even more dramatically, those enthusiastically working for them, has fallen, so this argument has collapsed.

Second was the "what we have, we hold" approach by the parties. This has never been very creditable. It was made more respectable by the third argument: that it avoided the weakness of incompatible coalitions between parties, and made our system the envy of the world; and that this was more important than abstract equity.

But do we really believe that we have been more effectively governed over the past 20 years than the Germans, with their very sensible system of proportional representation?

The avoidance of incompatible coalitions? Do we really believe that the last Labour government was not a coalition, in fact if not in name, and a pretty incompatible one at that? I served in it for half of its life, and you could not convince me of anything else.

Coalitions got a bad name in England because of a superficial aphorism by Disraeli, and because the word became associated with the worst phase of Lloyd George's career, and with the "hard-faced men" who supported him. But some form of coalition is essential for democratic leadership. The old Labour Party of Attlee and Gaitskell was a coalition of liberal social democrats and industrially responsible trade unionists. Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt have governed the Federal Republic of Germany with a coalition of social democrats and liberals for the past decade.

Sometimes the coalitions are overt, sometimes they are covert. I do not think the distinction greatly matters. The test is whether those within the coalition are closer to each other, and to the mood of the nation they seek to govern, than they are to those outside their ranks.

I am therefore unfrightened by the argument against proportional representation that it would probably mean frequent coalitions. I would much rather that it meant overt and compatible coalition than that it locked incompatible people, and, still more important, incompatible philosophies, into a loveless, constantly bickering and debilitating marriage, even if consecrated in a common tabernacle.

The great disadvantage of our present electoral system is that it freezes the pattern of politics. Everyone assumes that if a party splits it will be electorally slaughtered. I am not so sure. I believe that the electorate can tell "a hawk from a handsaw", and that if it saw a new grouping, with cohesion and relevant policies, it might be more attracted by this new reality than by old labels which had become increasingly irrelevant.

Nothing is perfect, and nothing, of course, solves everything. Nor will we get electoral reform overnight.

The paradox is that we need more change accompanied by more stability of direction. It is a paradox, but not a contradiction. We need the innovating stimulus of the free market economy, without either the unacceptable brutality of its untrammelled distribution of rewards, or its indifference to unemployment.

You encourage people without too much interference to create as much wealth as possible, but use the wealth so created both to give a return for enterprise, and to spread the benefits throughout society in a way that avoids the disfigurement of poverty, gives a full priority to public education and health services, and encourages co-operation and not conflict in industry and throughout society.

These are some of the objectives which, I believe, could be assisted by a strengthening of the radical centre.