Electoral reform should not be designed simply to stuff the Tories

Roy Jenkins will mobilise both sides of the PR argument against his shabby compromise
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The Independent Culture
I HAVE always had a soft spot for Roy Jenkins. Although he tried to destroy the party I love when he set up the SDP, I am part of that first generation that was able to see all the salacious plays and films that became available following his liberalisation of the censorship laws.

But for all his political skill and wisdom he seems to be about to make the classic political mistake that has sunk so many people before him. Faced with two irreconcilable positions on proportional representation, it looks as though he has decided to split the difference.

According to leaks from his commission on the voting system, it seems he is going to recommend keeping first-past-the-post for about 500 constituencies and restrict proportional representation to about 100 additional MPs drawn from party boss-approved lists. As a sop to the PR lobby, he is going to change the first-past-the-post electoral system so that, instead of voting for the candidate of your choice, you have to list all the candidates on your ballot paper in descending order of evil and mediocrity. This compromise would have the result of annoying virtually everybody both for and against PR.

Studies which have run this system through the computer based on last year's general election show that Labour would still have won a majority of over 60 seats, even though we only got 43 per cent of the vote. But depending on how people cast their second ballot for the party list, it is quite possible that you could achieve the bizarre result that the Liberals would have become the official opposition with more MPs than the Tories, even though they gained half the number of votes that the Tories did.

As someone who has supported PR ever since the 1974 elections discriminated so massively against the Liberals, I have always believed that if we are to change the voting system there has to be an honest and transparent logic justifying that change.

Roy Jenkins's proposals look like a simple device to permanently stiff the Tories, whilst giving the party leaderships huge and undemocratic powers of patronage over the pecking order of candidates on the party list. As we have seen in the scandalous decision of Labour's NEC to deny Labour Party members any say in the ranking order of candidates in next year's PR elections to the European Parliament, such a system is open to favouritism on a grand scale and would inevitably lead to even more toadying by Labour MPs desperate to keep in the leadership's good books.

What is so depressing about all this is that only three or four years ago, it looked as though the Labour Party was moving towards a consensus behind introducing PR along the lines of the German system, which guarantees that the number of seats in parliament for each party closely reflects the number of votes cast in the election. Since then, Labour's stunning landslide has caused a lot of PR's fair-weather friends to fall by the wayside. The ghastly manipulation of the process of selecting candidates for the new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly - along with the great Euro-fiddle - has caused a lot of supporters of PR to question whether the benefits of a fair voting system would not be outweighed by the huge increase in powers of patronage of the party machines.

Into this much less certain situation Roy Jenkins's proposals are the worst of all possible worlds. They aren't proportional and they allow party leaders to get rid of any MPs they find insufficiently obsequious. The result is that, rather like the Labour government's doomed proposals to reform the House of Lords in 1968, Roy Jenkins is going to mobilise both sides of the argument against the shabby compromise on offer.

It could all have been so different. There is a clear and simple defence of first-past-the-post in that it gives strong government with working majorities more often than not. To defeat this argument the alternative system has to be both genuinely fair and simple to understand. There must be a clear moral basis for any change - simply stuffing the Tories is not good enough. Those of us who support PR have be able to show that any new system will produce a parliament that more closely resembles the wishes of the British electorate than the present one.

Although I was converted to PR long before Mrs Thatcher appeared on the scene, she firmly reinforced my commitment. After 11 years of Mrs Thatcher I had all the strong government I needed for one lifetime. The idea that Mrs Thatcher, with just 43 per cent of the vote, could transform British society in such a damaging and destructive fashion whilst the majority of the population consistently voted against her is the strongest argument for change. Under genuine PR, governments would have to persuade and win the support of other parties in public debate, rather than be able to ram through unpopular measures like the poll tax and abolition of the GLC by having the whips drive the government's mindless majority through the lobbies night after night.

In the German system, each elector has two votes. The first is cast for a local constituency MP in a straightforward first-past-the-post ballot. Half the MPs are elected in this way. The second vote is cast for the party that you wish to see form the government. Once all the second ballots have been counted, the remaining 50 per cent of MPs are allocated to each party in the proportion necessary to bring their total number of MPs up to the percentage of votes cast in the second ballot. The result is that in German elections, seats in parliament are usually within one per cent of the votes cast by the electorate. This means no vote is ever wasted. For a Labour voter in Huntingdon, their vote is as likely to help elect a Labour MP as it is for one in Hackney. The position in which many voters decide not to vote in safe seats would no longer exist. The days of Labour voters having to vote Liberal in safe Tory seats and vice versa would be gone. At a stroke, elections become a positive exercise in which you can vote for the party you wish without wasting your vote, and the negativism that leads half the electorate against a party rather than positively for one, would be gone.

The downside to the German system is that the MPs elected with the second vote are drawn from party lists and therefore subject to patronage. As the Hansard Society pointed out as long ago as 1976, it would be perfectly easy, in allocating the top-up MPs, to select them on the basis of the most narrowly-defeated candidate of each party being top of the list for the additional members. At a stroke this would rob the party machines of any further patronage. Each additional member would have to have been selected by a local constituency, and to have fought as a candidate in the general election. In a country as large as Britain, it clearly makes sense that the top-up slates should be organised on a regional basis to ensure that each region of Britain is fairly represented.

I have no doubt that, left to his own devices, this is the system that Roy Jenkins would recommend. It is also the system the people of New Zealand voted for in two referenda and after years of debate. If we are going to change the voting system, let's get it right the first time, or the voters will lose patience.