Leading Article: Jenkins report must not be sidelined

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The Independent Culture
CLARITY IS politeness; of all people, Roy Jenkins should understand that. The harshest criticism of his cleverly designed voting system is that, while it may be ingenious, it is hardly elegant. And to invent a name for it as ugly as the "Alternative Vote Top-up" is almost to invite the electorate to respond with a shrug of indifference.

That is a shame. The difficulty with electoral reform has long been to persuade people that voting systems matter to the quality of their democracy. The chance to persuade people and politicians to change our antiquated voting system comes along only rarely. This century, it has come only twice: in 1917, when a Speaker's Conference recommended a semi- proportional system, and in 1931, when the Labour government nearly enacted preferential voting. Now, as we approach the dawn of the next century, Tony Blair and Lord Jenkins have their chance to make history by finally modernising our democracy.

It needs to be modernised. We are no longer an electorate of illiterates, capable only of marking one box with an X. Nor are we under any illusion that we are sending our Member of Parliament simply to represent our locality at Westminster, and to exercise their independent judgement on our behalf. We know we are governed by parties that organise themselves behind national manifestos. That means parties should be represented more fairly in Parliament than the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors have been in the second half of this century.

But it is not just the voters for certain parties who lose out under the present system. Most voters have too limited a choice, many votes are wasted in safe seats, and in many parts of the country large minorities, even of Labour and Tories, are unrepresented.

Above all, though, we know that parties can win large majorities in the House of Commons, and therefore are given the unchecked power of our elective dictatorship, against the wishes of a large majority of those voting. Mr Blair knows that, too. His party won its landslide on just 43 per cent of the vote at the last election (although he has since governed in informal coalition with the like-minded Lib Dems, thus co-opting their 17 per cent share). But that does not mean a strictly proportional system is necessarily desirable. The direct link between an MP and a locality is valuable, and the objection which Mr Blair himself has long posed has some force, namely that it would tend to deliver too much power to small parties, because they would be more likely to hold the balance of power.

Roy Jenkins and his commission have tried to balance the irresistible need for fairer representation against this immovable objection by proposing the election of between one-fifth and one-seventh of MPs from groups of constituencies in order to "top-up" parties that are under-represented. This strikes the right intellectual balance between the competing and often contradictory requirements of reform, and deserves to be "warmly welcomed", not just by the Prime Minister but by all supporters of reform.

However, there are a number of gremlins, if not actually devils, in the detail which require further work. Lord Jenkins's rejection of closed party lists is laudable. Allowing party machines to decide the order of candidates, as in the system for next year's European elections, is a charter for party bureaucrats and place-people. But the Jenkins scheme for allowing voters to choose between candidates on the lists lacks the virtue of simplicity: would it not be more elegant if there were a single top-up MP for each group of four or five seats?

Another point concerns the counting of votes for the constituency MPs, who would still make up the overwhelming majority of the Commons. Lord Jenkins proposes that voters should use numbers to rank candidates in order of preference (the "alternative vote"). But, rather than progressively eliminating the bottom candidate and reallocating their vote until someone has a clear majority, which can allow the candidate who starts off in third place to "come through the middle", it would be better to eliminate all candidates except the top two and reallocate the votes between them, which is in effect what happens in the French two-ballot system.

But these are cavils. The more pressing question is how the Prime Minister intends to take Lord Jenkins's proposals forward. Neither Mr Blair nor Lord Jenkins would like to admit it, but the proposals can be separated easily into two parts. There is no reason why voters at the next general election should not be allowed to number candidates in order of preference. It would increase voter choice and require no changes to constituency boundaries, or even to the design of the ballot paper. And the outcome would probably not be very different from the existing system, except that the Lib Dems would be likely to be more fairly represented.

That might get Mr Blair off the hook of his promise to hold a referendum during this parliament. A first-stage reform could satisfy the spirit of that pledge, while the referendum could be held later, on the question of the "top-up" element, which could be brought in only at the election after next because it requires new boundaries. There is no sense in holding a referendum and then having an election on the old system whatever the outcome.

This newspaper has always taken the view that the present electoral system is unsatisfactory; that reform will not make us better or richer people, but that, if the right system could be devised, it would breathe new life into our democracy. It could help to restore people's damaged faith in politics, it could give us more confidence as citizens, and it could make politicians more accountable to their electors. Lord Jenkins and his colleagues have gone a long way towards designing a system that meets these objectives.