Podium: Abolish one-party states in Britain

Roy Jenkins From a speech delivered by the Liberal Democrat peer to a `Make Votes Count' conference held at Church House, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE OUTCOME of the Scottish Parliament election was highly satisfactory. Proportional representation prevented the old Labour juggernaut of greater Glasgow from governing on its own. But without a likelihood of that, there would not have been nearly such a satisfactory result, as I regard it, in the Scottish devolution referendum, held last year.

I went to Scotland and became a Member of Parliament for Hillhead in early 1982. That was in the fairly close aftermath of the very unsatisfactory result of the 1979 devolution referendum. I've no doubt at all, from what I found in those days, that a substantial factor in that very weak result was the absence of proportional representation and the consequence that in Edinburgh, the east of Scotland, in rural areas to the north and the Borders, it would mean that Glasgow ran the whole of Scotland.

Therefore, I think that in order to have a fairly united will behind devolution, proportional representation for the Scottish Parliament was an essential feature. It made a coalition necessary, of course it did, but the coalition represented what the Scottish people voted for and that coalition was formed with dispatch and without squalor. And the new Parliament, despite a good deal of malevolent poking beforehand, has been launched with some panache.

Furthermore, there is a strong likelihood that the Scottish coalition will introduce electoral reform for local authority elections where it is overwhelmingly necessary, and not only in such places as Glasgow and Paisley. That in turn can hardly fail to provide cross-fertilisation south of the Border, where such reform is just as necessary.

The question is whether it will then be sensible or desirable for the House of Commons to hold out, isolated, with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the European Parliament, the London Assembly and maybe local authorities having been conceded to the forces of rationality.

I could understand such a position being objectively advocated if the House of Commons were thought to be working splendidly well, if it were thought to command great respect throughout the nation. But that, alas, I do not think is a case that anybody could firmly put forward.

I can, of course, understand why the House of Commons has been reluctant to embrace its own reform; that has been a characteristic of political oligarchies through the centuries.

I think it is remarkable that a political party, the Labour Party, which two years ago won the haphazard jackpot of getting 419 seats with barely 43 per cent of the vote, should have gone as far as it has to appoint my commission, to give an undertaking to consider its recommendations seriously and to have a referendum upon them.

That is a considerable improvement upon the record of all parties - including even the Liberals at one period of time, just to be fair all round - and including the position of a large number of the Tories who were very much in favour of electoral reform in the mid-Seventies when they thought there was a danger of insular Socialism being imposed by a minority government.

What broadly has been the case is that parties have been in favour of electoral reform when they had no power to do anything about it, and against it when they had suddenly to do something about it. That has been the rather gloomy pattern in the past, and therefore I warmly congratulate the Labour government on getting as far as it has.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating and that is now the test which the Government has to face. I've never believed - Liberal Democrat though I am, Liberal Democrat I shall remain - in seeing things primarily in the context of unfairness to the third party. The battle must be fought on a broader front. It is much more the unfairness to the electorate that should be at the centre of the case.

Without electoral reform people do not get the shape of the Parliament for which they've voted. Electoral deserts, one-party states and many individuals lack not merely the hope of voting for a winning candidate, but also the hope of seriously contributing by their vote to either the shape of the new Parliament or the colour of the government that takes office.

At the moment this is not a participatory democracy. The Make Votes Count campaign has a crucial role to perform. Great causes are won by diligence and by a steady accumulation of argument, not by a single flourish.

This is a great cause, and there are many good arguments to accumulate. I think that we shall overcome.

Comments